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How to Create a portrait of a person from their DNA?

How to Create a portrait of a person from their DNA- Everywhere you go, a little part of yourself is left behind. Your saliva on a coffee cup or cigarette, together with hair and skin flakes. How much data may be found in these traces? What if your likeness could be recreated using the DNA you leave behind?

In the 30-year-old murder case of the young Victoria couple Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, and Jay Cook, 20, authorities in Washington State revealed a picture of a suspect derived from DNA earlier this year.

The police created mugshots of the suspect at 25, 45, and 65 years old using a technique known as snapshot DNA phenotyping, which can identify a person’s eye, skin, and hair colour, facial characteristics, and ancestry.

How to Create a portrait

The profile does not take into consideration scars, facial hair, or other characteristics like weight.

Moreover, in February, Calgary police made a high-tech image public, claiming it to be a resemblance of the mother of a baby girl who had been discovered dead in a garbage on Christmas Eve.

The image was created by a Virginia-based business that specialises in DNA phenotyping, which uses unidentified DNA to forecast traits like physical appearance and lineage.

The biological sample that the police sent in for DNA phenotyping was located on the scene.

The technology was deployed for the first time by Calgary police.

Several additional Canadian homicide cases employed similar techniques.

How to Create a portrait

Through her work Stranger Visions, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been examining these concepts. She created a collection of 3D portraits based on the DNA from these discovered materials in 2012 by using chewing gum, cigarette butts, and other abandoned items she collected from public spaces in New York City.

According to Dewey-Hagborg, “They was really fortunate because the world’s first community biology lab had just opened up down the street from me in Brooklyn. Fundamentals of DNA analysis there in a crash course taught by Ellen Jorgensen at a place called Genspace.

She gained knowledge from Genspace about how to extract DNA from the objects she picked up and utilise the same kind of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedure that forensic experts use to determine if a suspect and a piece of evidence from a crime scene match. In such case, they would concentrate on DNA sections that are typically unique to each individual and compare them to determine if they are similar.

However, it is not at all easy to Create a portrait of a person face from their discovered DNA fragments. Dewey-Hagborg employed PCR to amplify specific DNA regions linked to observable features, such as eye color or nose size, for instance. The DNA sequence, or the arrangement of the letters As, Cs, Gs, and T that make up the genetic code, was read from these samples by a lab, and she would then research whatever trait was linked to that specific genetic variation.

Using sites like 23andMe and SNPedia, its like Wikipedia for SNPs, to create this very basic list of these kind of connections with what are known as SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Dewey-Hagborg then used the facial features given by the DNA sample to a mathematical formula of the face that she could modify using software. This served as the foundation for the life-size, 3-D printed replica of the face.

This technology was entirely theoretical when Dewey-Hagborg initially wrote Stranger Visions, and it served as a reflection on the function of monitoring in society. But soon after, a business named Parabon NanoLabs started providing a forensic service using a similar technology to rebuild mugshots using a DNA sample.

Dewey-Hagborg recalls, “That was the catalyst for me to change my discourse. They switched from discussing monitoring and the dangers of this new technology to writing and discussing the drawbacks of such instruments.

Based just on DNA, it is extremely challenging to predict someone’s appearance. Although there are extremely significant relationships between genetic variations and specific traits, this is not an exact science. For any genetic variation, various facial interpretations are available. The method of making the Stranger Visions portraits presented that difficulty as well.

“What they ended up doing was creating five or six distinct versions for each sample. They would then select one that they found intriguing or with whom they connected.

It is so unpredictable because there are so many distinct genes that can interact with one another and because controlling the expression of genes is a complicated process that depends on a lot more than simply the arrangement of DNA letters.

Another work by Dewey-Hagborg, Probably Chelsea, emphasises the unpredictability of this technique. Here, Chelsea Manning provided the DNA sample rather than an unidentified gum chewer. Dewey-Hagborg generated a variety of potential faces using Manning’s DNA.

Many of them don’t even remotely resemble the whistleblower, but a handful do if you know it’s her.

The method’s unpredictability also means that the individuals whose genetic information was left on the items Dewey-Hagborg collected from the streets of New York would not even have recognised themselves if they had ever seen Stranger Visions.

One of these portraits is now on show at the Wellcome Collection in London’s new “Being Human” exhibition.

London is one of the most watched cities in the world, with an estimated 500,000 CCTV cameras watching over citizens as they go about their daily lives. This Stranger Visions portrait’s criticism on monitoring may consequently resonate differently with Londoners than it does with viewers in other locations where it has been exhibited.

However, this sculpture is a part of an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection that promotes identity-related thought, which is very much in line with Dewey-objective.

The new permanent show “Being Human” at the Wellcome Collections in London will open on September 5 and feature one of the portraits from Stranger Visions.


Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been studying how to extract DNA from human remains. She used chewing gum, cigarette butts and other discarded items to create life-size 3D portraits. Uses same kind of technique forensic experts use to analyse crime scene samples. But soon after, Parabon NanoLabs started providing a forensic service using a similar technology to rebuild mugshots using a DNA sample. It is extremely challenging to predict someone’s appearance based just on DNA.

Sculpture is part of an exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London’s new “Being Human” exhibition. Artist Thomas Dewey-Hagborg generated a variety of potential faces using Chelsea Manning’s DNA. Stranger Visions’ criticism on monitoring may resonate differently with Londoners than those in New York.

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