Though this will sound like sci-fi, I promise it's real. There is an artist in New York City who gathers stray hairs found in subways and streets. She takes her samples to a science lab where, to derive the appearance of the hairs' former owners, she extracts the DNA from her finds and analyzes the genes. Finally, based on her interpretations of a person's DNA, the artist 3D prints a model of the stranger's face.
I'll admit to simplifying the science behind artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's DNA portraiture project, Stranger Visions. Although the project is indeed as creepy as it sounds, it's much more complicated to carry out, as the short documentary on Dewey-Hagborg's work shows us.
To extract DNA from the hairs she collects, Dewey-Hagborg visits Genspace, a fully functional molecular biology lab where people from diverse backgrounds can experience DNA-based technology. She first snips a small piece from the root of the hair and, using protocols she found online, adds chemicals to her samples to break down the hair cells and extract the hair's DNA. Once Dewey-Hagborg separates the DNA, she uses an extraction and analyzation method called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) to amplify those sections of the genome that determine a person's physical traits. She then sends some 40 areas of the genome to an external company for sequencing. That company returns text files of sequenced DNA which Dewey-Hagborg feeds into a self-made program that provides her a list of traits like, "56% chance of brown eyes." Another self-made program processes this trait information to generate a face, which Dewey-Hagborg eventually 3D prints in NYU's Advanced Media Studio.
Dewey-Hagborg, a PhD candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is not a trained geneticist. This is one of the most important points to take from Stranger Visions. Referring to Dewey-Hagborg's work, the Co-Founder of Genspace Ellen Jorgensen said in the film, "It really brings it to light how powerful it is, the idea that a hair from your head can fall on your street and a perfect stranger can pick it up and know something about it. With DNA sequencing becoming faster and cheaper, this is the world we're all going to be living in."
DNA mapping like that performed by Dewey-Hagborg can't yet use strands of hair to construct exact replicas of strangers' faces. DNA mapping is, however, at the point where even amateurs can use it to gain a fair sense of what a stranger probably looks like, something Dewey-Hagborg demonstrates in Stranger Visions. "Accuracy is not the point," she told The New Yorker. "It’s not a scientific study about how to construct faces from DNA. It’s a provocation meant to make you think about privacy."
Does this project provoke me? Certainly. Privacy is a hot button today, and rightly so. News of Dewey-Hagborg's work comes at a time when the government and huge marketing firms are gathering information about what we do online and in stores to use toward their own ends. Now Dewey-Hagborg wants to demonstrate that there is also a possibility for genetic surveillance, too. In the future, it's possible that any person you pass in the street could extract your DNA and put it to who knows what use.
"Things like hair, skin, saliva: we're constantly shedding these traces all over the place in public and not even thinking about it," Dewey-Hagborg said. This could create more privacy problems for us to handle in the future.
Stranger Visions combines what many of us have seen in sci-fi dramas and detective shows: using DNA to determine what a person looks like. Seeing that Dewey-Hagborg has brought this fantasy closer to reality, what do you think about the project? Let us know in the comments.