The Art of DNA – Stranger Visions

Posted in Science Sunday

Stranger Visions, by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates 3D art of people’s faces, using their DNA.

As human beings, our identity is part of what shapes us. Even our physical traits, habits and features can give away a lot of information about us; our level of confidence, vanity, how often we sleep, how often we exercise, etc. But what happens if the “whole picture” is not available? Maybe it’s just a single strand of hair, a flake of dry skin, the glass we drank from, the cigarette butt we crushed out or the gum we chewed – is that enough to go on?

It is, if the information you need is based in DNA. Those seemingly insignificant items can give away a substantial amount of details about you, if a person knows what to look for – and information artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg is just that person.

In a collection called “Stranger Visions”, Dewey-Hagborg creates 3D replicas of people’s faces, using only DNA she finds on old, discarded chewing gum and cigarette butts.

It’s incredible to think that these pieces of garbage – after just a few moments in contact with our bodies – can hold the elemental key our genetic makeup, DNA. What’s even more incredible is that the DNA left behind can be used to recreate a likeness (albeit, not exact) of ourselves.

You might be wondering – how is this even possible?

Heather explains that she uses her lab to put the DNA through a process called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), which helps her study specific areas of the genomes, called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms. After extracting the necessary amount of data, she sends it off to an external lab, where the strands of DNA are recreated from those pieces of information. These strands of DNA are sent back to Dewey-Hagborg, where they are fed into a 3D printing program.

Wondering how accurate the program is? Well, it’s hard to say; since the DNA she collects can not definitively disclose the age of a person (although there are methods that can get within a 5-year range), she just casts each anonymous model as a 25 year old… but it’s still pretty amazing to see the portraits. Here is a photo of Heather, holding the self-portrait art from her own DNA:

Heather Dewey-Hagborg (photo: Kari Mulholland/TED)
Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg (photo: Kari Mulholland/TED)

Artist’s website: See more +

Q & A Interview: Learn more +



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