Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv University and at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Boston have developed a method for identifying family names on the basis of genetic data, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.
They are using an algorithm that makes it possible to identify family names on the basis of genetic data in the Y chromosome, which is handed down through the generations from father to son.
This discovery, to be published in the journal Science, is said to have far-reaching ramifications not only for researching one’s family heritage, but for privacy issues as well.
The algorithm identified the surname of one in eight tested, said Prof. Eran Halperin of TAU’s school of computer sciences and the department of microbiology and biotechnology.
In one case, the researchers succeeded in determining the name and state of residence of a person using information from his Y chromosome.
The significance of the research, said Halperin, involves “more than a handful of useful applications, such as locating relatives and identifying bodies in natural disasters and other calamities. But there is also something sinister [since] if a person publishes his genome on the internet, even if done anonymously, his identity could be exposed, and this was from only one chromosome and not from all 22 pairs,” he added.
Accordingly, people who disclose their genome must be made aware of the risk of exposure, said Dr. Yaniv Ehrlich of the Whitehead Institute. “We believe that legislators must take special care when they plan such databanks.”