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DNA: Stranger Visions

Imagine. You’ve just smoked a cigarette and you toss the extinguished butt down onto the pavement. Or you’re sitting in a cafe and a piece of your hair falls onto the seat next to you. Imagine someone picking up these disregarded objects and using them to obtain samples of your DNA to create your facial reconstruct. Sound like the start of Hollywood’s latest science-fiction offering? It’s not. It’s artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s recent project, aptly titled Stranger Visions. She scours the streets of New York picking up genetic artefacts left behind rather unwittingly by strangers and then brings them into a lab to extract a sample of pure DNA from them. This is done by slicing the sample into minute pieces which she then incubates in a chemical mixture. Next, it is centrifuged and then re-incubated. This procedure is repeated a number of times until purified DNA is extracted. Dewey-Hagborg has learned that there are specific nucleotide sequences within the DNA that have been shown to indicate eye colour, nose width and racial identity. These sequences are amplified by the process of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This amplified DNA is then sent to a sequencing company and they in turn send her the nucleotide sequence in terms of the bases DNA is made of: adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. With these nucleotide sequences, Dewey-Hagborg is able to delve deep into the map of the human genome to find facial traits and build a 3D model of the face using a computer program she skilfully designed herself. Finally, using a 3D printer she brings the artwork out of the virtual and into the real world. The artist said she started the project to “open up the conversation about genetic surveillance”. Genetic surveillance can be defined as the obtaining and examination of an individual’s genetic information without their consent. She has certainly been successful in achieving her aim. Responses to her work range from “Orwellian” to “ushering in a new future in scientific art”. But the question beneath all the opinion is: is it legal? The answer is not definite and will most likely remain a grey area for some time. In 1995, the British government created the UK National DNA Database, an information centre that contains the DNA samples of millions of Britons collected from crime scenes and taken from police suspects. Its intended purpose is as a reference for criminals should they commit future crimes. But members of the public and organisations such as GeneWatch UK, a non-profit policy research and public interest group, are concerned that this may not be all it is used for, especially if it falls into the wrong hands in the future. GeneWatch asserts that there have been instances in the past in which DNA matches have been incorrectly associated with successful prosecutions. After demands from such pressure groups, in 2012 the government introduced the Protection of Freedoms Act, new legislation which states that the DNA samples and fingerprint records of over a million innocent individuals will be destroyed. What Dewey-Hagborg has brought to light is the notion that ordinary members of the population, even the non-scientific, can obtain personal information about strangers thanks to DIY DNA sequencing centres such as Brooklyn’s Genspace, which was used by the artist. Concerns are now rife that information obtainable from DNA, such as our susceptibility to certain serious diseases, could for example be passed on to insurance companies and used against people without their knowledge. It could lead to genetic discrimination. Additionally, with DNA sequencing technology now becoming increasingly cheaper and simpler to use, it may be time to set down stringent laws on exactly who can use it and within what capacity. As embodied beings, it is most natural for us to shed genetic information into the environment, but will it now strip us of our anonymity? On the other hand, the benefits of using genomic information to solve crime and create a safer future cannot be ignored. In 2010 the suspected serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper was arrested in the US because DNA found on his used utensils matched that found on his victim. Additionally, innocent people can be absolved of any crimes they may have been wrongly accused of. The ability to collect random samples of DNA may finally allow scientists to create large enough genomic databases from which thousands of different diseases can be checked for a genetic lineage. If subsequent genome sequencing of patients is introduced into mainstream medicine, it would allow doctors to use information derived from the general database to improve their diagnosis of diseases, identify an individual’s predisposition to certain diseases and design specific drugs able to act at this molecular level. Or perhaps our discarded bodily artefacts could simply be used to create truly original works of art. )

Next article in issue 70

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