When our DNA is fair game

Dewey–Hagbourg analyzes phenotypic alleles before using custom software to generate what she calls a “general likeness” of a stranger. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF HEATHER DEWEY-HAGBORG
Dewey–Hagborg’s work is concerned with privacy, genetics and the future of biotechnology.

The average person sheds 50 to 100 strands of hair every day. Some hair gets stuck on our clothes or remains in our brushes or combs, but a good number of strands can be lost during our daily travels and end up attaching to subway seats, drifting onto elevator floors, or settling on tables at our local cafés. How many of us ever pause to consider the genetic information that we are scattering with every left-behind hair? The 33-year-old, Chicago-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg thinks about it a lot, and after viewing her work, she hopes you might too.

In 2012, Dewey-Hagborg created the piece “Stranger Visions,” which displays 3-D portraits of individuals that are generated through DNA-phenotyping of items she came across in her daily life, such as hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts.

For “Stranger Visions,” Dewey-Hagborg amplified regions of DNA that contained single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, associated with physical traits such as gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles or predisposition to obesity. When determining which SNPs to analyze, Dewey-Hagborg did her research. She says, “I tried to gather as much information as I could on anything that could be extrapolated to be related to appearance.” She says SNPedia — an online database that summarizes peer-reviewed data related to medical, phenotypic or genealogical SNPs — was a valuable resource for the project. She also used 23andMe, the personal genetic profiling service. “For a SNP of interest, they link to the papers that the trait is based on, and you can make up your own mind if it’s accurate or relevant.”

After DNA sequencing, Dewey-Hagborg analyzed her results and determined which phenotypic alleles were present for the sample. She then compiled the results of the physical traits into custom software that she developed to generate a 3-D model of what the individual’s face might look like. The key word being “might.”

“Exact reconstruction of a face from DNA alone is still the stuff of science fiction. It represents a general likeness of the person at best,” Dewey-Hagborg says. A description of the SNPs analyzed and a detailed materials and methods section can be found on Dewey-Hagborg’s blog.

Prior to creating “Stranger Visions,” Dewey-Hagborg had no formal training in molecular biology. She took an introductory biotechnology course at the community laboratory Genspace in Brooklyn, N. Y. There she learned the basics of DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction.

Dewey–Hagborg’s 3-D portraits are generated through DNA phenotyping of discarded items such as hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts.

Dewey-Hagborg did have a background in computer programming and electronics but found molecular biology techniques challenging. With the guidance of scientists at Genspace and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where the artist is a Ph.D. candidate in electronic arts, Dewey-Hagborg soon began pipetting like a professional. “It was a really steep learning curve,” she says.

Before her work on “Stranger Visions” even was finished, the press took notice. Major media outlets, from Science to CNN, came calling. “It took on a life of its own,” says Dewey-Hagborg. The publicity for “Stranger Visions” fueled strong reactions, and the artist says she received some hate mail. “People were upset that I was violating individuals’ privacy, and of course they were right! That was the point of the work — to make you think about privacy, genetics and the future of biotechnology." 

Dewey-Hagborg had been thinking a lot about privacy and surveillance tools such as facial recognition, speech recognition and wiretapping before creating “Stranger Visions.” “It struck me that we pay attention to specific forms of surveillance but ignore an incredibly personal form that could be taking place without our knowledge. That realization was something I felt I needed to follow up on and make public and visible,” she says.

This led Dewey-Hagborg to create her follow-up to “Stranger Visions,” called “ Invisible.” “Invisible” consists of two products that protect our DNA identities in public spaces by providing a “forensic cover-up.” The first component is a spray called Erase that is composed of a bleach mixture that can remove nearly all traces of DNA left on a surface. The second solution, Replace, is a mixture of arbitrary, synthesized DNA from more than 50 people that is used to cover up any of our remaining DNA. “Invisible” is sold at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City and meant to be both a real product and thought-provoking art.

“It is again something that is meant to bring public attention to these issues around hackability and privacy and to question the authority of DNA as a gold standard in a forensic context,” Dewey-Hagborg says. The instructions to make your own Invisible kit are available online.

Currently, Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teaches a class in bioart and has developed a lab to facilitate this type of artistic work. She plans on continuing to exhibit “Stranger Visions” by incorporating new research that has become available since its 2012 debut as well as designing other pieces that focus on privacy and surveillance. “I have a feeling they will stir up some more controversy!” she quips.

Nicole C. Woitowich Nicole C. Woitowich is a member of the public outreach committee and a Ph.D. candidate at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.