DNA in the Public Domain


If you’re a smoker or a gum-chewer, or if you have fingernails, you may end up walking into a New York art gallery to find something familiar on the wall. Your face. Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses discarded gum, cigarette butts, hair, and nails to construct facial sculptures of the people who left behind these usually-ignored items. She processes the sample to extract the DNA, then focuses on certain genetic regions containing markers for race, height, eye color, and other characteristics that define your face. After comparing these results to genome databases, she constructs a 3D model of your face and sends it to a 3D printer. And then she puts your face mask on display in a gallery, along with the original item and a description, so that the world knows that you were chewing green gum on a Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn. Is it just me, or is this whole concept super strange and creepy? But Dewey-Hagborg’s work, unsettling though it may be, gets its power from the very idea that makes it so unnerving: all of us shed DNA all the time, whether in the form of cigarette butts or hair or whatever else, and technology has progressed to the point that if people want to they can find out a whole about who left it behind. We’ve used our ability to interpret genes to solve crimes and identify parenthood, but doing it just for kicks feels new and invasive. This means that others can track us like never before, and know more about us than we ever intended to reveal. Outside of the Big Brother-esque possibilities, there is an amazing array of uses for gene sequencing in the medical field. One high-profile manifestation of this technology is the BRCA gene test—simple sequencing that can tell a woman if she is at high risk for breast cancer. (Angelina Jolie recently made headlines when she chose to have a preventive double mastectomy after this test revealed she carries the inherited BRCA1 gene mutation). Oncologists can also investigate the DNA of a person’s tumor and choose therapies specifically targeted for their individual disease. Strategies like these can help people get appropriate screening and less invasive treatment, but making genetic sequencing as common as a blood test could have unwanted side effects. Think about insurance and pre-existing conditions. What if you don’t have a condition yet but your genes say that you might one day? Can someone deny you coverage based on the possibility of disease? Knowing too much can be a burden personally as well. Perhaps a test for one disease turns up a predisposition for something else entirely—how do you handle that? And what if you learn that your genes predict something you can’t do anything to stop? Gene patenting has also become a controversial issue. If you leave genetic material behind and you have some interesting or useful gene, can someone else use that gene? Can they patent it? Learning to read the previously closed book of our genome is an incredibly powerful tool, but it comes with risks that we need to address. As Dewey-Hagborg’s face masks provocatively illustrate, we all leave our DNA pretty much anywhere we go. With the development of technology to the point that we can now sequence and interpret those left-behind pieces of ourselves, I know that I’m a little bit more squeamish about any stray hairs left behind on the train. Genetic sequencing leaves us open to others knowing more intimate details than ever before, whether the sample comes from a cigarette butt or a willingly-given cheek swab. This is the next frontier in medicine, and it’s exciting and will hopefully save many, many lives. But before I’m willing to send my cheek swab to a public database (as I’ve been urged to do a couple of times for the sake of science), we need to figure out the answers to the hard questions that come along with this new era. Photo credit: My Modern Met


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