Leave me your DNA … and I’ll 3D-print your face | The Guardian
Your DNA is as personal as you can get. It has information about you, your family and your future. Now, imagine it is used – without your consent – to create a mask of your face. Working with the DNA bits left behind by strangers, a Brooklyn artist makes us think about issues of privacy and genetic surveillance.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a 30-year-old PhD student studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has the weird habit of gathering the DNA people leave behind, from cigarette butts and fingernails to used coffee cups and chewing gum. She goes to Genspace (New York City’s Community Biolab) to extract DNA from the detritus she collects and sequence specific genomic regions from her samples. The data are then fed into a computer program, which churns out a facial model of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette or gum behind. Using a 3D printer, she creates life-sized masks – some of which are coming to a gallery wall near you.
3D Sculpture pictured is by: Sophie Kahn
Okay, I’ve seen this story going around for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still worried/unsure if people know the facts surrounding this art; facts like IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR SOMEONE TO TAKE YOUR DNA AND MAKE AN ACCURATE FACIAL RECONSTRUCTION OF YOU.
Your genes make you look the way you look, but we (geneticists/scientists) cannot make an accurate facial reconstruction with the knowledge we have right now. That’s right, not even remotely. Here, I’m going to link a blog post from Forbes blogger Matthew Herper, where he, in no uncertain terms, clarifies what the artist DID, and what she FABRICATED, and what her real intentions were with this artistic piece.
The only information gathered from the DNA samples were markers for gender, ancestral group (extremely broad categories), and eye color (which is a bit of a gamble, we can only give probabilities at this point in time, like “I’m 50% sure this person has brown eyes…”), and that’s it. I’m betting many of us, given the same data, would come up with VERY different portraits (regardless of artistic ability…of which I have none or I would demonstrate).
So let’s all take a deep breath and take a step back. I think we can learn more from this art than simply “remind me never to leave my gum on the sidewalk for those crazy scientists to get.” While we can’t yet discover your face in your DNA, we can certainly learn a lot of personal, private information, and that knowledge and ability is growing every day. We should start thinking about the questions and fears that people have surrounding genetic privacy NOW, so that when the time comes where we can accurately profile you from your genes, we have laws and regulations in place to protect us. I think this was in part what the artist intended, however misunderstood the science behind her art has become.
So, while, “Dewey-Hagborg’s portraits may rarely resemble the people whose DNA she’s using to generate them. The whole thing … shows how ill-prepared we are for dealing not only with what biotech may do in the future, but for what biotech can do now.”
Artist Creates Portrait From People’s DNA. Scientists say ‘That’s Impossible’ - Matthew Herper, Forbes
The bold emphasis is my own.