It seems like some sort of unrealistic forensics show, but tracing the identity of humans using only common hair and saliva is very real. It’s so feasible in fact, that PhD student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Heather Dewey-Hagborg can generate a close likeness of the owner from only their genetic droppings. This technology is raising new questions about much information we leave behind in public places, and dropping jaws about the elegant complexity of the human genome.
Heather and her team at Genspace can literally recreate someone from a few centimeters of their hair. They cut the hair and break down its cells, run polymerase chain reaction to select and amplify certain segments of DNA, and finally analyze the genome for what she calls SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms.
Using only these small genetic indicators and custom analysis software, she can find probabilities for certain traits that illustrate what the owner of the hair may actually look like. Most fascinatingly, all of this information can be found from what we leave behind in public every single day.
Although the process is somewhat involved, Heather mentions current commercial technologies that actually allow this kind of analysis. Police, for example, have a detector that shows them what the eye color of the perpetrator may have been. Heather’s work is simply the vast expansion of the capabilities of this process.
Ultimately, this research raises a new awareness of the previously unimportant pieces of ourselves that we shed without a thought. When we’re walking on the street, spit out our gum, or simply press our lips against the mouth of a bottle, we’re leaving behind vital information about who we are. Now scientists can use this hidden feature of nature to actually create spot-on likenesses of ourselves.
Science and nature are curiously magnificent.
- Artist puts a human face on discarded bits of DNA (science.nbcnews.com)
- Generating a sculpture from a hair: the work of Heather Dewey-Hagborg (ted.com)
- Creepy or Cool? Portraits Derived From the DNA in Hair and Gum Found in Public Places (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
- A portrait of you from a single hair: The work of Heather Dewey-Hagborg (adityaaman.wordpress.com)
- The Future is Here: Using 3D Printing and DNA to Recreate Faces (storiesbywilliams.com)