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Monday, April 15, 2024

What If Fans Could Gather and Sequence Athletes' DNA?

What if you could walk into a room with a small handheld vacuum and in a few minutes gather up the DNA of everybody who’d been there recently? While this sounds like a fake gadget from a low-budget crime drama, it might not be as far away as you think.

Earlier this year, researchers at two universities published a set of papers in the journal Current Biology detailing a new technique for detecting DNA floating through the air. They tested the devices in zoo settings and were able to detect 49 species at the Copenhagen Zoo and 25 in Hamerton Zoo Park in England.

The researchers involved in this work are expressly not interested in sniffing out humans and have actively blocked and discarded any human DNA from the results. Their hope is to use the tool to understand the species that might exist in an environment without having to set up camera traps or catch creatures in nets. The idea that you could use this kind of device to suck up human DNA and then identify the individual human associated with it is purely speculative. But since speculating about future technologies is my specialty, reading about these papers got me thinking.

There are plenty of spy-thriller-style plots one might concoct with this kind of device—imagine bringing one of these to conferences or political meetings or casinos—but I’m most interested in what this might mean for athletes. Imagine taking one of these gadgets into a locker room or a meet and greet where players gather to sign autographs and sucking up the genetic material of an entire soccer team. Would that be legal? Can you collect and sequence someone’s DNA without their permission? Why might someone even want to do such a thing?

The genetic makeup of athletes is of interest to plenty of people. And though blanket DNA testing isn’t yet standard practice in athletics—in one survey of athletes from 2018, researchers found that only 8 percent of athletes and training staff were aware of genetic testing being done within their organization—it’s growing in popularity. As genetic testing becomes cheaper, more sensitive, and more mainstream, it’s likely to become more common in the locker room as well.

Sometimes it’s a way to (supposedly) protect against liability. Athletes with the sickle cell trait have wrestled for years with the tension between safety and genetic privacy. In 2005, the Chicago Bulls asked basketball player Eddy Curry Jr. to take a DNA test to evaluate his potential risk of a heart condition that could result in sudden death. The Bulls even went so far as to add a genetic testing clause to Curry’s contract and offered $400,000 annually for the next 50 years if he failed the test. Curry refused, but before he could take any kind of legal action he was traded to the New York Knicks. Not only were the Knicks reportedly skeptical about this particular genetic risk and test, they also play in a state that bars employers from requiring a genetic test as a term of employment.

But it’s not just professional players who are thinking about the power of genetics. Coaches and teams might want to use genetic information to scout new recruits. Back in 2008, a company called Atlas Sports Genetics launched a service to inform parents which sports their children might be best suited for. Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences at one point said it would use genetics to identify future Olympians. In 2016, Baylor University’s football team partnered with Athletigen Technologies to use genetics to develop specialized training programs for players.

Genetics are also likely to play a role in the current debate within the athletic community surrounding intersex athletes and how their biology may or may not impact their performance. (To be clear, the science on that is very much undecided.) Sports betters might try to gain an edge by detecting the genetic makeup of a competitor. And of course fans are always hungry for more information about their favorite athletes. Speculation about what makes an athlete great is fodder for journalists and barstool know-it-alls alike.

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It’s worth pointing out that the link between a person’s DNA and their athletic achievements is very hard to pin down. There’s very little evidence that you can predict specific success by DNA alone. There are rare cases, like that of the Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta, who possessed a genetic mutation that gave him vastly more red blood cells than the average person. But based on current science, having an athlete’s DNA doesn’t necessarily tell you all that much about their potential or performance. In 2015, the British Medical Journal published a “consensus statement” written by sports science experts arguing against the use of direct-to-consumer genetic testing to identify sports talent. “There isn't one thing that makes an athlete great, and to assume so becomes really dangerous,” says Seema Patel, a law professor at Nottingham Law School.

That said, if I’ve learned anything from tech reporting, it’s that something doesn’t have to be feasible or demonstrable to be profitable.

So will there be protections if the technology advances? The answer, as with so many questions of privacy and law, seems to be: It depends. Teams are allowed to ask athletes to undergo any number of tests, and athletes’ contracts don’t often allow them to decline. “It’s unfortunate,” Patel says, “because of those unilateral agreements that they sign up to in order to compete, they have to give up their rights.” Today’s athletes are constantly tracked in all kinds of ways. “It’s understood that your body is a site of public discourse,” says Rayvon Fouché, a professor of American Studies at Purdue who studies the intersection of athletics and technology. “These athletes are commodified, and their biometric health data is part of the business of how we evaluate and value them.”

But what about my “DNA vacuum in the locker room” scenario? Is anything stopping a future fan or stadium employee from attending a game with a device of this sort and getting their hands on the DNA of LeBron James or Serena Williams or Katie Ledecky?

It’s best to separate this question into two parts—collection and sequencing—according to Sonia Suter, a professor at George Washington University’s law school. Collecting someone’s DNA without their consent is a complex topic. Past legal precedent in the United States states that if someone has thrown something away, they no longer can claim to have any privacy interest in that object. So unless there was a local law forbidding dumpster diving, it would be theoretically legal for someone to go through an athlete’s trash and collect objects that might contain DNA. Or consider a situation in which an athlete throws a towel or jersey into the crowd. Whoever catches it certainly isn’t stealing.

But in my scenario with the vacuum, you wouldn’t even have to do that. You could simply be in the same space as your target and gather the sample you need. This possibility already worries privacy advocates as forensic techniques get more and more sensitive. We all shed DNA constantly; every time you move through a space, you’re likely leaving behind traces of yourself. Those traces used to be too slight to pick up, but with advanced forensics, even these tiny scraps can now be worked up into a genetic profile.

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Many privacy advocates have argued that DNA you leave behind should not be considered the same as something you actively throw away. No amount of Gattaca-style scrubbing and deception can keep humans from leaving their genetic material behind. But so far there hasn’t been a specific case to determine where the lines are on this.

This is part of why Suter says the core of the issue isn’t collection. It’s sequencing. “Nobody really cares if you take their coffee cup that has their DNA,” she says. “They care that you analyzed their DNA.” The question of how to consider data like genetic information is still murky within the American legal system—should we talk about genetic data as property? Or does it make more sense to put these regulations under the less physical umbrella of privacy? “The argument for property would be that then we could start to say it’s kind of a theft. They’ve taken your information without your consent.”

Most direct-to-consumer DNA companies require you to affirm that you have the consent of the person whose DNA you are sending. Of course, not everybody follows those rules. And Suter pointed out all kinds of challenges in truly keeping this from happening: the differing laws in different states (if the sample was collected in one state and then sequenced in another), the difficulty of tracing the sample back to the source, the emergence of DIY DNA labs.

Countries also have different laws that could apply in these cases. In the United States, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) protects people from being discriminated against based on genetic information. In the United Kingdom, the Human Tissues Act states that it’s illegal to have human tissue for the express purpose of sequencing without the person in question’s consent. But both Suter and Patel agreed that regulations could be better. “When it comes to sport, there are global issues and cross-jurisdiction issues that make it problematic,” says Patel, who has proposed the creation of an antidiscrimination unit for international sports to address things like this.

The reality is, a hypothetical DNA vacuum isn’t required for any of this. Collecting DNA from people—famous or otherwise—is getting easier and easier. You can simply pick a cup up off the floor, or, if you’re feeling especially dedicated, go after someone’s sewage.

As a privacy nerd, I find the idea that you can suck DNA out of the air and sequence it unsettling. As a sports fan, I’m equally uneasy about the push to quantify talent via DNA. The idea that you might select future athletes at an early age by prioritizing genes over any other criteria suggests we could miss out on athletes who “shouldn’t” be as good as they are. Usain Bolt was considered “too tall” to excel at the 100-meter dash, and we all know how that turned out. Similarly, Jordan Chiles has been called “too tall” to excel at gymnastics, Tanya Harding was “too muscular” to be good at figure skating, and Muggsy Bogues was “too short” to play basketball. Had any of those athletes lived in a future in which coaches and trainers weighted genetics more heavily, they might not have made it.

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“I think if we open our minds about what athletes’ bodies ‘should’ be, then we open the way for new avenues for athletic performance and capabilities,” says Fouché. “It’s a desire to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “I think we also don’t want to acknowledge and embrace how complex bodies are.” And this doesn’t just apply to sports either. The idea that you could reduce a human’s potential down to base pairs—perhaps gathered without their consent—should worry everybody, no matter how fast you can run. 


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