WTF Fun Fact 13219 – DNA Sculptures

An artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has created DNA sculptures using genetic material from random items discarded by strangers.

How are DNA sculptures created?

Dewey-Hagborg first collects discarded DNA samples. These come from cigarette butts or hair. She then uses the DNA left on the items to generate 3D-printed portraits. In theory, these sculptures should reflect the physical attributes of the person from whom the DNA was taken.

The process starts with extracting the DNA from the sample. She then amplifies specific regions of the genome that are associated with physical characteristics, like hair color or facial structure. The amplified DNA is then sequenced to determine the individual’s genetic information. This information is used to create 3D models of the person’s face. Those models are then 3D printed for her art installations.

The artist bases the final sculptures of the sculpture on genetic information. But it also relies on assumptions about how genes influence physical appearance. So, in some sense, they are speculative. You likely wouldn’t be able to track down a person based on a sculpture.

In an interview in Interalia Magazine (cited below), Dewey-Hagborg explained her process. “I walked around picking up people genetic material and analysing it, making portraits, to show the coming risks of genetic surveillance. That as our DNA is increasingly legible (fast, easy, cheap to sequence) we are facing new cultural consequences.”

As for her goal:

“My goal, if I have one, is to inspire audiences to critically engage with science and technology in their lives. To be aware of structures around them, of things present or soon coming, and to think and talk about them with others; to discuss what should or shouldn’t be.  I hope that my work invites viewers into a visceral encounter with the near future.”

Genetics and art

By using DNA as a medium, Dewey-Hagborg tries to raise questions about the role of genetics in shaping our identities. Her work also has implications for thinking about advances in biotechnology for privacy and individuality.

Dewey-Hagborg has displayed her work at the World Economic Forum. She has also sold work to the Centre Pompidou, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Wellcome Collection, the Exploratorium. She has a Ph.D. in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  WTF fun facts

Source: “A visceral encounter with the near future” — Interalia Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13119 – Greenland’s Ecosystem Surprise

Evidence from the oldest DNA ever analyzed indicates that northern Greenland used to be a lush wonderland where mastodons, reindeer, geese, and hares once lived among a wide array of trees and other greenery. Greenland’s ecosystem surprise was reported in the journal Science in December 2022.

Why is ancient Greenland’s ecosystem such a surprise?

Today, Greenland’s ecosystem is far less varied thanks to its extreme Arctic climate. While you will find moss, lichen, small trees, and bushes in the tundra, it’s still largely considered an Arctic desert.

According to Eske Willerslev, a paleogeneticist at the University of Cambridge and a co-author of the study,

“No one would have predicted an ecosystem like this. Some species you find further south in Greenland, but a number you don’t find in the Arctic at all. It’s an ecosystem with no analog in the present day.”

Ancient DNA

According to Science (cited below), the insights into Greenland’s ancient past “come from the oldest DNA ever recovered: 2-million-year-old snippets of genetic material from more than 100 kinds of animals and plants, extracted from buried sediments.”

So not only is the information about Greenland’s ecosystem special, but the ability to use short and partially decayed DNA from millions of years ago is an exciting development.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Beyond evidence of reindeer, geese and one mastodon, [the researchers] also found signs of marine species, including horseshoe crabs and green algae. In this era of the island’s geologic history, temperatures were around 18 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they are in Greenland today.”

Needless to say, scientists are excited about the finds.

I wouldn’t have, in a million years, expected to find mastodons in northern Greenland,” said Love Dalen, a paleogeneticist at Stockholm University in Sweden.

“It feels almost magical to be able to infer such a complete picture of an ancient ecosystem from tiny fragments of preserved DNA,” said Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Lost world in northern Greenland conjured from DNA in ancient soil” — Science