Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Human Genome Contaminated With Mycoplasma DNA

The discovery of alien DNA in the published human genome raises important questions about preventing ‘virtual infections’

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

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.