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NYC artist begins turning found DNA Into 3D Portraits

Here’s something out of the ordinary.

It all began in a therapy session; Heather Dewey-Hagborg noticed a painting on the wall and lodged in the cracked glass frame was a single hair. “I just became obsessed with thinking about whose hair that was, and what they might look like, and what they might be like,” the doctoral student in Information Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

It was then that her obsession escalated, and she became fascinated with everybody’s rubbish, like a womble. She desired dropped cigarette butts, chewed-up pieces of gum and anything drenched in genetic material. So Dewey-Hagborg’s catalogue of “artifacts,” as she calls them, expanded and she continued bringing them back to a lab to analyze their embedded DNA. Whilst trading an easel for a centrifuge is a peculiar development for an artist, deep in the human genome is where her inspiration is taking her.

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The process goes like this: she takes extracts of DNA from the aforementioned samples and turns that information from code into life-sized 3-D facial portraits that resembling the individual who left the sample behind. Then she can use code to adapt and change the eye colour, eye and nose width, skin tone, hair colour and more.

Precisely, she takes her samples and incubates the sample with chemicals to distil it into pure DNA. With that DNA, she “amplifies certain regions of it using a technique called PRC – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows her [me] to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms”.

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“That’s a very tiny subset of all of the things that we know about the entire mapping of the human genome,” she says.

With the use of a sequencing company, she is then able to send off the DNA to receive a text file full of A, C, Ts and Gs: the four nucleotides that compose DNA. With her self-designed program, she can translate the code into traits, then using those traits to parameterise a 3-D model of a unique face. For example “gender, ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features” Dewey-Hagborg can determine.

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As aspects of the information remain missing, Dewey-Hagbord then has to fill in the missing pieces, she does so in a “3d software then export if for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full colour using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue”.

Fancy leaving a couple of cigarette butts around NYC and seeing yourself printed? Well, it’s difficult to know how close the portraits are to their mysterious owners, how could she know? Well, she did display a version of herself in a Chelsea gallery:

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“Half of the people would say, ‘Wow! It looks just like you!’” she says. “The other half would say, ‘Wow! It looks nothing like you!” Whilst these portraits are subjective, she acknowledges, but says much of the information is solidly based in data.

She intended to “open up the conversation about genetic surveillance,” with this project, but it has become a whole lot more serious. Dewey-Hagborg is currently working with the Delaware medical examiner’s office to try to identify a woman in a 20-year-old unsolved case by using some of the victim’s remains to build a 3-D portrait of her. Whilst she is six weeks away from finishing the process, the investigators will have an idea of what the victim looked like before her death for the first time.

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