01:33 - Source: CNN
Artist creates faces from human DNA

Story highlights

Heather Dewey-Hagborg extracts DNA from material and turns that into 3-D faces

Her project, "Stranger Visions," fashions the DNA into portrait sculptures

"From a cigarette butt, I can learn where someone's ancestors likely came from ..." she says

Editor’s Note: This package is part of “Technovations,” a CNN series on bold innovations in the fields of science and technology.

CNN —  

We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go – in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.

So you may want to think twice the next time you spit out your gum or drop a cigarette butt in public.

New York artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg might pick it up, extract the DNA and create a 3-D face that could look like you. Her project, “Stranger Visions,” fashions portrait sculptures from bits of genetic material collected in public places.

“The idea for the project came from this fascination with a single hair,” Dewey-Hagborg told CNN. “This turned into a research project for me exploring exactly what I could discover about someone from an artifact they left behind.”

As it turns out, she could discover a whole lot.

Her process starts with finding a sample in a public place – a strand of hair, a cigarette butt or a chewed piece of gum – anything that might contain cells from a person’s body.

“You want something that is relatively fresh,” she said. “Nothing that has been stepped on or that looks like it’s been sitting around for ages.”

Dewey-Hagborg takes the sample to a community biotechnology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace. There she uses a standard DNA extraction protocol to mine the DNA, purify it and use it in polymerase chain reactions. The technical process is outlined on her blog.

“From a cigarette butt, I can learn where someone’s ancestors likely came from, their gender, eye color, hair color, complexion, freckles, their tendency to be overweight and a handful of dimensions of the face as well with a certain likelihood,” she said.

Once she obtains the sequencing information, she takes the traits she’s gathered from the individual’s DNA and feeds it into a computer program to generate a 3-D model of a face.

“The way that I use code is a lot like how a sketch artist would use a pencil,” she said. “I’ll take the code, and then I’ll generate different versions of a face. I’ll use the code to enhance certain facial features or decrease them based on what I find in the DNA.”

It takes about eight hours to print one of Dewey-Hagborg’s faces in 3-D at NYU’s Advanced Media Studio. Once it’s printed in what looks like a block of powder, the face is dug out, baked and hardened with a superglue-like substance.

But there are limitations. The faces are not exact replicas of the stranger who left the DNA behind. Dewey-Hagborg considers it more of a family resemblance.

“It’s important to understand that these portraits are a general likeness. They’re not exact reconstructions,” she said. “They’ll have things in common with the person, but they won’t look exactly like the person.”

She is also unable to determine ages from