DNA Art

According to an article in the NYT, an artist has collected DNA samples from litter on sidewalks, such as chewing gum and cigarette butts, and used those samples to extract and sequence DNA that she then used to make computer models of their owners’ faces. She then printed 3-D masks that she is showing at her upcoming exhibit called Stranger Visions. The artist hopes her exhibit will spark a dialogue over genetic surveillance.

The NYT article explains that

[w]hile staring at the wall of her therapist’s office, the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg noticed a strand of hair stuck in a hanging print. Walking home, she noticed that the subways and sidewalks were littered with genetic material on things like chewing gum and cigarette butts, some still moist with saliva. Curious about what she could learn, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg began to extract and sequence DNA from these discarded materials. Then — and here it gets a little eerie — she began to make computer models of their owners’ faces, using genetic clues to print 3-D masks that she concedes “might look more like a possible cousin than a spitting image.” Hanging these portraits along with the original samples, she says, is “a provocation designed to spur a cultural dialogue about genetic surveillance.” After the June exhibitions, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg will show her work early next year at the New York Public Library. She has also collaborated on a tongue-in-cheek project called DNA spoofing, which purports to offer ordinary people some techniques to avoid detection by scrambling their genetic material.

Talk and exhibition at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. Exhibition at QF Gallery in East Hampton, N.Y., opens June 29.

[Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog]

0 thoughts to “DNA Art”

  1. Hmm, this art project strikes me as misleading and as likely to lead (indeed, already has led) to overblown reactions. It appears (from here: http://deweyhagborg.com/strangervisions/samples.html) that she’s basing these masks on very little data: (1) presence or absence of the SRY gene, which tells her whether the cigarette butt or gum, or whatever, was in the mouth of a male or female; (2) mtDNA Haplotype, which tells you something pretty broad (e.g., “Eastern European”) about only half of the person’s ancestry (the half on his or her maternal line); and (3) the person’s genotype at the HERC2 gene, which *predicts,* probabilistically, one’s eye color — and only for those of European ancestry, because, alas, that’s the data we currently have. (So, for instance, in Europeans, those who are homozygous for HERC2 (AA), as all four of her samples are, have an 85% chance of having brown eyes; a 14% chance of having green eyes; and a 1% chance of having blue eyes. To take another example, I am heterozygous (AG), which gives me a 56% chance of having brown eyes; a 37% chance of having green eyes; and only a 7% chance of having blue eyes. Although she would have predicted that I would have brown eyes, I in fact have blue eyes.)

    All of which is just to say that, so far as I can tell, she’s working with sex; ancestral groups that are usually very broad, and in any event only reflect half of the individual’s DNA (from which she presumably guesses hair color and texture and bone structure); and a decent guess at eye color. There are hundreds of thousands (at least) of people who would fit these descriptions even if each of her phenotype predictions were accurate, and in many cases, one or more of those predictions are probably going to be wrong.

    And yet her masks, and the publicity they’ve generated, suggest that simply genotyping the saliva on a leftover dinner glass could easily re-identify someone by creating a 3D mask that resembled the proband’s unique face. As Big Think disappointingly puts it (here: http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/dna-street-art-or-the-future-of-genetic-surveillance), “imagine walking into your local coffee shop and seeing your face up on the wall without ever having posed for a photo or portrait. . . . The only thing that [DNA] can’t tell you, apparently, is the specific age of the person.” Oh brother.

    I appreciate that she acknowledges that the masks may look more like a “cousin” of the proband than the proband him- or herself, but even that is misleading unless we think of each person as having 100,000 “cousins.” Given that she intends her art to “spark a dialogue over genetic surveillance,” that’s a little troubling.

    (Also, with respect to her “self-portrait” (see here: http://www.theverge.com/2012/7/5/3138563/stranger-visions-genetic-surveillance-eyebeam), which is being used to suggest how accurate her method is, I’m pretty sure that there are no genes for plucked eyebrows.)

  2. I agree with all your points. But she’s an artist doing edgy work that is likely to make the viewer uneasy. Perhaps she should be representing the genetic component of her art more accurately (it’s still edgy, even with 100,000 “cousins”)–but I think that the journalist had a role here, right? Her artwork is giving fuzzy glimpses that evoke individuals from their discarded items. I think it’s a successful project, even with very broad, generalized features, and the work kind of speaks for itself. But a journalist should be better at accurately representing the scientific link she’s using.

  3. Absolutely. I’d probably give a pass to a journalist covering her project only as art. But Big Think bills itself as “big idea hunters”; like the TED folks, they ought to take care that the big ideas worth spreading (to blur their brands) are accurate.

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