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Science & Technology

Artist Plays Detective: Can I Reconstruct A Face From A Piece Of Hair?

cigarette butt

Her techniques aren't super-sophisticated. She's not a leader in the field. She's more or less an amateur. This is what you can do with ordinary genetic engineering tools right now. Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg can find a cigarette lying on the sidewalk on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, and working from traces of saliva, by pulling DNA out of those saliva cells and using a bunch of simple algorithms available online, she can make some very educated guesses about what the smoker might look like.

/ Vimeo

She thinks she's got a probable lead on not only gender, but on more subtle things: eye color, hair color, facial structure, skin tone. The bit of green chewing gum she found next to a bodega on Wilson Avenue ...

/ Vimeo

... "probably" (while the probabilities may vary with characteristics) belonged to a Latino man who looks like this ...

gum chewer
/ Vimeo

And, although this isn't fair because she already knows what she looks like, when she tried retro-engineering herself from her own DNA, this is what she got ...

Heather self portrait
/ Vimeo

How she does this, you will see here, in this short (well, it's longer than I usually post, clocking in at more than 11 minutes) documentary shot by Kari Mulholland. The video takes us from Heather sitting in her doctor's waiting room pondering a little hair stuck under glass in a picture frame, and then we move on, to her decision to collect loose hairs left on subway seats, tabletops, to the business of breaking DNA out of ordinary saliva or hair, to her finding the genetic bits that code for eye color, hair color and facial features online, to her ultimate works: 3-D sculptures that are now shown in art galleries all over the world.

As commentator Ellen Jorgensen says, Heather's project is "a very accessible way for the public to engage with this new technology. It really brings it to light how powerful it is, the idea that a hair from your head can fall on your street and a perfect stranger can pick it up and know something about it, and with DNA sequencing becoming faster and cheaper, this is the world we're all going to be living in."

I guess so. What I don't know is, How close is she getting, really? What I do know, is that while getting her Ph.D. and doing her art, she has managed to learn whatever it is you need to know to do this, and it didn't seem to take her that long.

I'm thinking, this is a game a lot of people can, and one day will, play. I hope they're nice people.

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