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Artist Turns Strangers’ DNA Into “Genetic Portraits”
May 27, 2013
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The DNA portrait above bears a slight resemblance to Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Collecting DNA sounds like something a character would do in one of the many police dramas that dot the TV landscape.

One New York City artist is getting in on the act, though, collecting "stray DNA" from used gum, cigarette butts and the like, and using it to create 3D images of what the oblivious "donors" might actually look like.

The idea, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg says, came from a therapy session. She was staring at a wall print and noticed a single hair lodged in the glass. From there, she started collecting hair samples from public bathrooms for her show, 'In Stranger Visions'.

Dewey-Hagborg says she wants to encourage viewers to consider issues of genetic determinism and surveillance.

She explores these issues by extracting, in partnership with Genspace, a DIY Biology lab in Brooklyn, DNA from each piece of "evidence" she collects, focusing on specific genomic regions.

She then sequences and compares the regions in the DNA she's collected, to those found in human genome databases.

The artist looks for specific genetic indicators known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are linked to certain physical characteristics, from male pattern baldness to eye colour and freckles.

The information is then entered into a computer program Dewey-Hagborg designed, similar to Morph Face from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

From those models, she then produces actual sculptures using a 3D printer. What she's left with is a kind of multidimensional police composite sketch - but it's far from accurate.

Facial modeling algorithms are in their infant stage.

While geneticists can reliably identify genes linked to some traits, the tool is considerably less accurate when it comes to features like nose shape and overall facial structure.


Dr. Graciela Cabana, Director of Molecular Anthropology Laboratories in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, tells Strombo.com, "we're not quite 'there' in terms of linking DNA to facial features, but I like the fact that the artist is playing with a potential future, and in doing so, inviting us to react to that imagined future."

'Molecular phenotyping' as it's called "might become a forensic tool," says Cabana, "but we're not sure yet how specific it could be."

Predicting features like eye, hair (or lack thereof) and skin color are fairly well established, and researchers have found that a certain gene called TP63 is a predictor of the gap between the centres of each eye-socket, which can prove helpful.

But there's not too much more to go on as of yet.

Dewey-Hagborg says this of her 3D images and how they correspond to the DNA "donors":

"They will have similar traits and ancestry, but might look more like a possible cousin than a spitting image of the person themselves."

The technique will likely never be able to reconstruct someone's face based on DNA alone. For one thing, DNA doesn't contain information about how old an individual is, and it can't account for how life has changed someone's appearance.


"The more genomes we sequence, the more [physical] correlations we will find", says Dewey-Hagbor. "I think we will get close but you can't discount the role environment plays in expression of genes."

So far, nobody has recognized themselves in the portraits. But that's not the point.

Says the artist, "this work is a provocation, designed to spur a cultural dialogue about genetic surveillance and forensic DNA phenotyping. What does it mean for... an amateur, to do this? What are the implications for privacy issues as well as law enforcement?"

Those implications could be serious: "If I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you. I can clone you. I can impersonate you."


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