In what is either one of the most novel or frightening stories involving 3D printing and genetic research, it seems that an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been using the technology to recreate the faces of litterbugs. This may sound like something out of a dystopian novel – using a high-tech scenario to identify perpetrators of tiny crimes – but in fact, it is the basis of her latest art project.
It’s known as Stranger Visions, a series of 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Using samples of discarded gum and litter collected from the streets, a her work with a DIY biology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace – where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA – she was able to reconstruct what the strangers looked like and then printed the phenotypes out as a series of 3D portraits.
According to Dewey-Hagborg, the inspiration for this project came to her while waiting for a therapy session, when she noticed a framed print on the wall that contained a small hair inside the cracked glass. After wondering who the hair belonged to, and what the person looked like, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.
In a recent interview, Dewey-Hagborg explained the rather interesting and technical process behind her art:
So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.
I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.
Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.
I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.
The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. Naturally, there are plenty of people who wonder how accurate her approximations are. Well, according to Dewey-Hagborg, the portraits bear a “family resemblance” to the subject, and at this time, no person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet…
And of course, there are limitations with this sort of phenotype-DNA identification. For starters, it is virtually impossible to determine the age of a person from their DNA alone. In addition, facial features like scars and hair growth cannot be gauged, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years of age.
And yet, I cannot help but feel that there is some awesome and terrible potential in what Dewey-Hagborg has created here. While her artistic vision had to do with the subject of identity and anonymity in our society, there is potential here for something truly advanced and invasive. Already it has been considered that DNA identification could be the way of the future, where everyone’s identity is kept in a massive database that can either be used to track them or eliminate as suspects in criminal cases.
But in cases where the person’s DNA is not yet on file, police would no longer need to rely on sketch artists to identify potential perps. Instead, they could just reconstruct their appearances based on a single strand of DNA, and use existing software to correct for age, hair color, facial hair, scars, etc, and then share the resulting images with the public via a public database or press releases.
And as Dewey-Hagborg’s own project shows, the potential for public exposure and identification is huge. With a sophisticated enough process and a quick turnover rate, cities could identity entire armies of litterbugs, polluters, petty criminals and even more dangerous offenders, like pedophiles and stalkers, and publicly shame them by posting their faces for all to see.
But of course, I am forced to acknowledge that Dewey-Hagborg conducted this entire project using a DIY genetics lab and through her own ardent collection process. Whereas some would see here an opportunity for Big Brother to mess with our lives, others would see further potential for a democratic, open process where local communities are able to take genetics and identification into their own hands.
Like I said, the implications and potential being shown here are both awesome and scary!