The DNA portrait artist

2 minute read

Twitter gets results! A group of geneticists (honestly, including me) were kvetching on Twitter about this NPR story: “Litterbugs Beware: Turning Found DNA Into Portraits”. The story profiles an artist, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, whose chosen project blends the idea of genetics with identity:

Yet it might seem Dewey-Hagborg would be more comfortable in a studio than a laboratory. She's an artist; a doctoral student in Information Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. For her most recent project, though, much of the creative process takes place in front of a centrifuge, wearing latex gloves, deep in the map of the human genome.
In short, Dewey-Hagborg extracts DNA from these samples of trash and turns that information from code into life-sized 3-D facial portraits resembling the person who left the sample behind. She can code for eye color, eye and nose width, skin tone, hair color and more.

Now, for those of us who are actually working in human genetics, the premise of this story is obviously science fiction. There is no way to create accurate “life-sized 3-D facial portraits” of people based on their DNA. There is some information about skin, hair and eye pigmentation, but even that is not sufficient to generate a portrait of these traits for an individual with forensic accuracy.

Forbes reporter Matthew Herper caught wind of the Twitter convo and began investigating the story. He interviewed Dewey-Hagborg by e-mail and got her response to the criticism that her portraits are not rooted in scientific accuracy. I think her responses stand for themselves: “Artist Creates Portraits From People’s DNA. Scientists Say ‘That’s Impossible’”. It’s a conceptual art project, as she writes, “The point of the work is to create a provocation”.

Well, it is provocative. My concern is that it plays on people’s fears of genetics in ways that reinforce widespread misconceptions about the power and process of science.

Herper concludes:

But though our genetic privacy may not be safe, our faces probably are. Dewey-Hagborgs portraits may rarely resemble the people whose DNA shes using to generate them. The whole thing most disturbingly the fact that shes been contacted by law enforcement officials 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. She needs to work at making her message clearer.

It would be more illustrative to use a series of photographs of people who have the same genotypes as the person who left a cigarette butt, to show the range of different facial shapes and features instead of pretending we can focus on a single one. After all, we already know the effects of stereotyping upon witness reports from crime scenes. Adding a new category of genetic stereotyping based on a very limited degree of gene-phenotype associations can only push things further into the realm of misinformation.