New DNA-Scanning Software Can ID You in Minutes

But could hackers abscond with your genetic information?

Imagine a security system, say a key card scanner, an airport security checkpoint, or a pass code based on your DNA. That’d be really hard to hack. It sounds like science fiction. But researchers at Columbia University, along with colleagues at the New York Genome Center, have gotten us much closer to that day.

They’ve created software which can identify someone’s DNA in minutes. This has implications for crime scene investigation, emergency management, and scientific research. Their findings were published in the journal eLife. In their report researchers write that they have developed, “a rapid, inexpensive, and portable strategy to robustly re-identify human DNA.’” It’s also highly accurate.

MinION is a device the size of a credit card that sucks in nucleotide sequences through microscopic pores on its surface and reads them. Nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA, represented by the letters A, T, C, and G. Previously, MinION was used to study viruses and bacteria. But the instrument isn’t very precise. In fact, it often misses whole sequences. So it hasn’t been used on human cells, since our DNA is comprised of billions of nucleotides.

To ID someone, MinION is used to sequence random DNA strands. Soon, nucleotides called individual variants are identified. These are unique to each person. That information is fed into a computer, which uses a Bayesian algorithm to compare the individual variants with those on file. The program only needs to cross-check between 60-300 variants, making the process quick. It can take as little as three minutes to find a match. Researchers call this new method, “MinION sketching.”

A DNA-based security system could offer much more security, on and offline. Credit: Getty Images.

Sophie Zaaijer was the lead author of this study. She’s a former NYGC member and is currently doing postdoctoral research at Cornell Tech. She gave a sample of her cheek cells to a public database called during a previous study. In this one, she herself was one of the test subjects.

Zaaijer’s genome was compared to 31,000 others in the database. The research was identified within minutes. "Using our method,” she said, “one needs only a few DNA reads to infer a match to an individual in the database.” Researchers also used MinION sketching to match leukemia cells against ones found in the Cancer Cell Line Encyclopedia database.

Today, the technique costs $1,000 to perform. So it’s not ready for security use, yet. But if Moore’s Law holds and computing power keeps going up, not to mention the price of genetic sequencing coming down, it won’t be long before it’s available for governments, corporations, and scientific research organizations, among others.

Yaniv Erlich was the senior author on the study. He’s a computer science professor at Columbia. "Our method opens up new ways to use off-the-shelf technology to benefit society," Erlich said. "We're especially excited about the potential to improve cell-authentication in cancer research and potentially speed up the discovery of new treatments."

Billions of dollars are lost each year due to mislabeled or contaminated cell lines. These problems delay research and as a result, slow the introduction of new treatments. This new method could eliminate waste and allow more medical studies to be reproduced.

MinION sketching could also identify everyone in a disaster zone and find out quickly who’s missing and may need help. On another front, it could be used to ID crime victims and perpetrators at a crime scene, giving investigators a faster response time, and making them more likely to solve crimes before the trail grows cold.

MinION sketching could help relief workers identify and locate missing people after a disaster strikes. Credit: Getty Images.

What are the negative ramifications? Biometric sensors are already becoming mainstream. Apple has released the new iPhone X with Face ID. Finger and iris scanners today aren’t uncommon. And experts estimate that by 2020, there will be two billion biometric smartphones in the world.

Meanwhile, Google plans to replace passwords on Andriod apps with a “Trust Score.” Apparently how we type, what we click on, and a slew of other digital behaviors can be tracked and calculated to form our eDNA, or our unique online behavioral signature. A series of enormous hacks, including Yahoo and Equifax, have shown us how vulnerable our current systems are. Meaning this tech is needed. But what happens when someone steals your eDNA, your biometric data, or your actual DNA information, things that are imprinted on you forever?

It isn't farfetched to think that DNA information could be used to pin a crime on someone, to pass through security as someone else, or as a red herring, to lead authorities off the trail. DNA information could also be sold on the dark web, or become a new form of identity theft, perhaps one that’s far more insidious and harder to recover from.

New and tougher layers of security must be crafted before MinION sketching becomes widespread. What’s more, we need to have a public conversation about how much of our own biometric and DNA information should be available for security purposes, and how much safeguarded.

One expert believes that rather than tightening up, we should instead begin storing our DNA data in the cloud. To find out more, click here:

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How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.

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You can learn good design through these books. Most of which is avoiding bad design.
Personal Growth
  • Like chess, Formula 1, and making ravioli... design has rules.
  • The rules are flexible. But the main point of these rules is to avoid bad design.
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