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The DNA you left behind

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 29, 2013 12:02 PM

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Call her the gum scavenger. The human hair collector. The DNA sculptor. The Creators Project recently interviewed New York City artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who creates three-dimensional portraits of strangers' heads using DNA samples they've left behind in public: on gum, hair, cigarette butts, and fingernail clippings. Dewey-Hagborg, who considers her work a provocation on the theme of "genetic surveillance," works with a lab to extract DNA from the detritus and render it using facial modeling algorithms. These algorithms, and our understanding of the relationship between genes and facial features, are still quite crude: Geneticists can reliably identify a person's hair and eye color from their DNA but they're still largely stabbing in the dark when it comes to predicting features like nose shape and overall facial structure. (Dewey-Hagborg, who calls her project "Stranger Visions," told The Creators Project that her renderings are "very probabilistic.") Here are two examples of her recreations, including the artist with her self-portrait:



Images courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Dan Phiffer

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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