Scavenging the debris-filled streets of Brooklyn, New York with rubber gloves and plastic bags, 30 year old PhD student Heather Dewey-Hagborg probably looked a little strange. What she was planning to do was in fact strange- and to some people, a little unsettling. By collecting hair, gum, cigarette butts, and fingernails from the street, Dewey-Hagborg created a unique bio-art project called “Stranger Visions.”

“Stranger Visions” is a collection of random people’s faces created by using DNA analysis and a 3D printer. Dewey-Hagborg used the hair, gum, cigarette butts, and fingernails she obtained as the sources of DNA for her project. She even took her portraits on exhibition, and for each face she included its original DNA sample, the data gathered from that sample, and a photograph of where it was found.

This process of using a small sample of DNA to create an intricate facial reconstruction requires many steps. First, DNA must be obtained. Dewey-Hagborg says the best source of DNA is cigarette butts. She argues that, with cigarettes, “There just tends to be more stuff there to actually pull the DNA from.”

Next, she takes her samples to a lab for the DNA to be extracted. Dewey-Hagborg used two different labs to complete this step, one being Genspace, a DIY Biology lab in downtown Brooklyn, and the other a lab on the campus of her school, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

After the DNA has been successfully extracted from the sample, she amplifies certain areas of it by running a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) on the DNA. Dewey-Hagborg says that using PCR to magnify DNA “allows [her] to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person.” These areas she mentions are called SNPs, or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms. Since SNPs contain different genetic information for everyone, focusing on them allows Dewey-Hagborg to find the unique biological characteristics of each sample owner.

But before she can do this, she needs to send the results of her PCR to a lab. After, the lab sends her back text files in the genetic code for each sample of DNA. She takes these files and aligns them with a bioinformatics program, and then determines the allele present for a particular SNP on each sample. Multiple SNPs are analyzed on each sample.

Then, this information is put into a custom computer program that interprets the alleles each sample has and determines what physical traits are associated with them. The machine understands the parameters given to it and is able to form an image of a 3D face that incorporates them.

Finally, Dewey-Hagborg can 3D print the face models for each DNA sample.

However, the final product isn’t perfect. DNA doesn’t tell Dewey-Hagborg the age of the stranger, and she says that her process creates “basically a 25-year-old version of the person.” Along with this, she points out that the facial reconstructions are most likely not spitting images of the people the samples came from, mainly because of limited information on facial morphology. The portraits are best described as displaying a family resemblance.

Although facial morphology is in its early stages, Dewey-Hagborg’s project points out the scary reality of how close society is to achieving genetic surveillance. She states that, “If I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you. I can clone you. I can impersonate you. It’s a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now.”


About Mr. Mohn

Biology Teacher

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