Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Earlier this year, molecular biologists announced that 20 per cent of nonhuman genome databases are contaminated with human DNA, probably from the researchers who sequenced the samples.

Now, the human genome itself has become contaminated. Bill Langdon at University College London and Matthew Arno at Kings College London say they’ve found sequences from mycoplasma bacteria in the human genome database.

This contamination has far reaching consequences. Biotech companies use the human genome database to create DNA chips that measure levels of human gene expression. Langdon and Arno say they’ve found mycoplasma DNA in two commercially available human DNA chips.

Anybody using these chips to measure human gene expression is also unknowingly measuring mycoplasma gene expression too.

In some ways, this is hardly a surprise. “It is well known that mycoplasma contamination is rife in molecular biology laboratories,” says Langdon and Arno. With any luck the discovery of this stuff in the human genome database will focus minds on the problem.

A key question is the nature of this kind of information transmission. These mycoplasma genes are clearly successful in reproducing themselves in silico. One possibility is that we’re seeing the beginnings of an entirely new kind of landscape of infection.

Here, genes that can masquerade as human (or indeed as other organisms) can successfully transmit themselves from one database to another. And if we think of this as virtual infection, a sure bet is that we’ll be worrying about virtual evolution in the near future.

But what to do? The level of contamination and the way in which it is spreading suggests that researchers are losing the battle to eliminate it. “We.. fear current tools will be inadequate to catch genes which have jumped the silicon barrier,” they say.

Most frightening of all is the possibility that Langdon and Arno may have only scratched the surface. “Having found two suspect DNA sequences, it seems likely the published “human genome” sequence contains more,” they say.

If virtual infection is really as big a problem as Langdon and Arno suggest, we may well need to protect databases with the genomic version of antivirus software, a kind of virtual immune system.

But this in itself is likely to trigger an evolutionary arms race that selects genes most capable of beating the safeguards.

Clearly, this is a nettle that needs to be grasped quickly. That’s if it’s not too late already.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1106.4192: More Mouldy Data: Virtual Infection of the Human Genome

3 comments. Share your thoughts »

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me