July 7, 2013
Think Twice About Spitting Out Your Gum
Every day, people spit out their gum, leave cigarette butts, shed hair, and just generally leave molecules of themselves wherever they have been. In fact, most of us do not think twice about throwing away our napkins, plastic ware, and tissues nor do we even worry when we spit out our gum, leave cigs behind, or shed our hairs. But maybe we should.
One electronic artist is showing us just why we should be concerned about the DNA we leave behind us. A recent edition of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) discusses how this left behind DNA can be used to reconstruct individuals. The article was written by C&EN co-editor Linda Wang and is about the work of Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a Ph.D. candidate in electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dewey-Hagborg raised many questions about what can be done with our left over DNA in her art exhibit called “Stranger Visions.” “Dewey-Hagborg used genetic analysis and three-dimensional printing technology to produce facial sculptures of anonymous strangers whose DNA she’s collected from chewing gum, cigarette butts, strands of hair, and other items that people have left behind in subways, bathrooms, and other public places around New York City.”
She did not pursue this in order to creep on strangers; rather, she wanted to show just how easy it would be to take a minimal amount of DNA and recreate how a person looks, which is creepy enough, but it gets worse. Dewey-Hagborg was also able to learn
about the stranger’s genetic make-up as well, which means through this technology, people may be able to gain inside knowledge about individual’s genetic predispositions. They could recreate you! Through her study, Dewey-Hagborg understood the power of leftover DNA.
The article gives an example of just what these findings could lead to. “For example, what if during his first presidential election campaign the public learned that Ronald Reagan had the gene for Alzheimer’s disease? asked Nancy J. Kelley, founding executive director of the New York Genome Center. How would that have changed the course of history?” If we could know our politicians’ genetic diseases and disorders, how would that affect our votes?
Moreover, what if we could learn this information about our potential partners? All I could think about is learning about my own genetic disorder, Factor V Leiden. I just recently learned that I had a genetic disorder. With the technology used by Dewey-Hagborg, complete strangers could have learned about me before I did. There is power, albeit not always altruistic power, in that knowledge.
Obviously, “Stranger Visions” elicits much consternation, particularly in terms of the societal and ethical implications. In the words of the press release about the article, “at a time of concern and debate about the privacy of email and other personal communications, Dewey-Hagborg raises some of what may be the ultimate personal privacy issues.”
I know knowledge and understanding are important, but to know that the information is out there on just how to do what Dewey-Hagborg did is really disconcerting. This process in the wrong hands could be devastating. Of course, in the right hands this knowledge just might bring about change, cures, and more peace. It seems to be a double-edged sword, but isn’t all knowledge? I feel bittersweet about the potential in stranger DNA.
To see more information about Dewey-Hagborg’s art exhibit “Stranger Visions,” check out her website.
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock