Cloaking DNA

Illustration by Terry Allen

Researchers have found a way to better protect individuals’ privacy during genetic disease research by using cryptography to keep most of the genetic information hidden, exposing only genetic differences that are relevant to a particular disease.

The method could lead to better research of diseases that can be passed from generation to generation, researchers say.

“Often, people who have diseases, or those who know that a particular genetic disease runs in their family, are the most reluctant to share their genomic information because they know it could potentially be used against them in some way,” says Gill Bejerano, PhD, associate professor of developmental biology, of pediatrics and of computer science and a senior author of the research published Aug. 18 in Science.

Co-senior author is Dan Boneh, PhD, professor of computer science and of electrical engineering.

The “cloaking” method enables someone whose genome is being studied to encrypt it, using an algorithm on their computer or smartphone, into a linear series of values describing the presence or absence of the gene variants and allowing researchers to pinpoint only study-relevant variants.