The Art of DNA

All living things on Earth have one thing in common. They all have DNA. What is DNA? I’ve always struggled with this question, never quite grasping the answer. What I am able to interpret is that DNA is made up of a mix of amino acids called adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. And the mix is unique in every living organism.

DNA is represented on diagrams with the first letters of each amino acid:  A, C, G, and T. Mix them up and roll them like dice and you have a person. Or a gazelle. Or a kumquat. The DNA molecules, which are laid out in parallel strands called double helix, are repeated as life grows. I don’t know about animals or plants, but I do know that even though all humans have the same DNA, the layout or sequence of each individual is different. When a human is conceived, their DNA is a mix of both parents. That leads to a unique DNA makeup. Siblings may be very similar, but only identical twins are 100% identical.

DNA was first identified in Switzerland in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, a physician. In 1878, Albert Kossel discovered the actual nucleic acids, the basis of DNA. However, it wasn’t until 80 year later, in 1958, that the full DNA sequence was mapped and classified.

Since then, DNA testing has been used to positively determine biological relationships among living things, pinpointing relationships in people, plants, or animals. Modern animals have been traced to their ancient counterparts. Plants have been identified as descending from the ferns, grasses, and flowers that grew on the Earth millions of years ago. DNA analysis has also been instrumental in helping law enforcement to identify bad guys and has helped Maury Povich unmask an unknown number of recalcitrant fathers.

Besides determining whose saliva is on a cigarette butt or from what portion of the world the Ashkenazi Jews originated, DNA genetic research, for the most part, has gone into finding cures for diseases, developing new insect- and disease-resistant food plants, or determining who your ancestors were. However, now we are seeing DNA used in a much broader array of applications.

An ad agency in Hong Kong is using salvaged DNA to post pictures of people who are throwing litter on the ground. Working with a Virginia-based genetics technology called Parabon Nanolabs, the ad group has started publishing computer generated portraits based on DNA data collected from litter. Data can come from skin cells, hair, or dried saliva attached to the litter. By examining the genetic data collected, technicians can determine skin and eye color. They can also determine general facial features such as the distance between the eyes and the width of the nose. Traits the program cannot determine are age and physical condition. Masks are printed out using 3-D printing software and printers. Although the masks do not necessarily look exactly like the perpetrator, the printout similar enough to provide a “family resemblance.” The face may look like the person’s Grandpa Harry or Cousin Ethel.

In Hong Kong, pictures of alleged litterers are being posted and published. “It was intended to provoke a conversation to create social change for the people of Hong Kong,” Reed Collins, Chief Creative Officer for Ogilvy-Mather Hong Kong, is quoted as saying. “The prospect of this idea alone, we hope, will be enough to make people think twice about littering.” By creating giant wanted posters of litterers, Ogilvy hopes to reduce the amount of trash thrown in the street. All I can say is I’ve been to Hong Kong and good luck with that.

In New York, the home of all things totally different, an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg, is using the same technology to make sculptures of complete strangers. By gathering saliva, hair, or skin from cigarette butts, soda cans, or chewing gum, she is able to the discarded refuse and turn it into faces.

The police department in Toronto, Canada, is using the same technology to identify people who have committed crimes. The system works almost as well as drawings compiled from eye witness descriptions.

DNA mapping is great for genetic research, catching bad guys, and creating 3-D facial masks. In addition, a whole new field for using DNA is emerging in the art world. DNA11, a company based in Ottawa, Canada, is taking DNA down a completely different path. For between $200 and $1000, DNA11 will make a color portrait of your DNA. According to company president Nazim Ahmed, “It’s the first genetics lab in the world dedicated 100% to crossing art and genomics.”

The first step in creating DNA art is sending the company a swab with your saliva. The company will supply the swab kit. When they receive a swab, they begin processing it with eight different markers, insuring a unique piece of artwork for each customer. They then enhance the eight DNA bands that make up the double helix to make them large enough to be seen. After enlarging the bands and separating them according to size, the samples are stained with a UV dye, photographed, and printed out on canvas. On average, the prints cost anywhere from $200 to $1000. The company will do special projects, an example being a six foot tall DNA waterfall which was sold for $25,000. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and one of the world’s most recognized nerds, has had his genetic portrait done by DNA11.

The company can also provide you with portraits of your lips or fingerprints if you so desire.

So think twice before tossing that candy wrapper or chewed up gum on the street. If you trash the streets, you may find your face on the local litter scofflaw wall of shame.