Genomic Privacy 101

Tutorial on Genomic Privacy and Security

Privacy and Security in the Genomic Era, in 23rd ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS), Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria, October 24-28, 2016

Genomics 101
Learn about the basics of genetic and genomic information, as well as links to online resources. For more information, visit the NIH website.


An allele is one of two or more versions of a gene. An individual inherits two alleles for each gene, one from each parent. If the two alleles are the same, the individual is homozygous for that gene. If the alleles are different, the individual is heterozygous.


In the nucleus of each cell, the DNA molecule is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome is made up of DNA tightly coiled many times around proteins called histones that support its structure. Chromosomes are not visible in the cell’s nucleus—not even under a microscope—when the cell is not dividing. However, the DNA that makes up chromosomes becomes more tightly packed during cell division and is then visible under a microscope.


DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).


A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Genes, which are made up of DNA, act as instructions to make molecules called proteins. In humans, genes vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to more than 2 million bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. Every person has two copies of each gene, one inherited from each parent. Most genes are the same in all people, but a small number of genes (less than 1 percent of the total) are slightly different between people.


A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. Each genome contains all of the information needed to build and maintain that organism. In humans, a copy of the entire genome—more than 3 billion DNA base pairs—is contained in all cells that have a nucleus.


A genotype is an individual's collection of genes. The term also can refer to the two alleles inherited for a particular gene. The genotype is expressed when the information encoded in the genes' DNA is used to make protein and RNA molecules. The expression of the genotype contributes to the individual's observable traits, called the phenotype.

Genome-wide association study (GWAS)

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are a way for scientists to identify genes involved in human disease. This method searches the genome for small variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced "snips"), that occur more frequently in people with a particular disease than in people without the disease.

Linkage disequilibrium (LD)

Where alleles occur together more often than can be accounted for by chance. Indicates that the two alleles are physically close on the DNA strand.


A phenotype is an individual's observable traits, such as height, eye color, and blood type. The genetic contribution to the phenotype is called the genotype. Some traits are largely determined by the genotype, while other traits are largely determined by environmental factors.

Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)

Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are a type of polymorphism involving variation of a single base pair. Scientists are studying how single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced "snips"), in the human genome correlate with disease, drug response, and other phenotypes.