Open call: Genetic Privacy and Identity

Open call: Genetic Privacy and Identity

This year guest lecturer, Daniel Kohn, has a history of genetics and art. In 2003, Kohn began a partnership with Dr. Todd Golub who, at the time, was an oncologist at Dana Farber and who would go on to become co-founder of the Board. Golub, like many of us, was interested in exploring the intersection of art and science and, with Kohn, began an artist-in-residency program at the Broad Institute for Genetic Research at both MIT and Harvard. Kohn’s work at the Board institute based on interviews and discussions with scientists, the development of the Broad visualization group, art explore the space of genomics and developing a point of convergence between science and art. His final work was the development of a watercolor grid of 8X8 sheet, developing a database of images, that when put together created a heat-map, each but also connected within working groups.

Daniel Kohn, discussing his work with ArtLab attendees at the exhibition this past March.

ArtLab participant at Vanderbilt also explored genetic identity.  Vanderbilt Undergraduate students Chiaki Santiago and Sophia Druffner considered how individuals could be reconstructed based on their genetics and environmental pressure to characterize the individual uniquely. They highlighted the beauty in the space between cultures and their intersection. Their thought process showcased individuals defined by their backgrounds and life experiences. These people lived with various histories and traditions, most as inherent to them as the DNA itself. They also used falcon tubes to highlight Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), the assay used to amplify and replicate specific portions of DNA, and they used this symbolism to amplified the elements of the individual’s culture. With each defining the content, the art was a comment to the viewer about what is essential to the individual subject. Items in the falcon tubes included food made by grandparents, earth from their home, and mementos of that represented their faith. For the artists, this project aimed to have the viewer contemplate genetics, cultural replication, and individual identity.

Sophomore undergraduate, Eve Moll, delve into the epigenetics of learning and memory. As a 20-year-old student and visual artist, her submission for ArtLab was a piece inspired by the work carried out by the Sweatt Lab at Vanderbilt University concerning epigenetics processes within the hippocampus, a brain structure essential for learning and memory. Her painting expresses the feeling of memory while representing the biological basis of memory through light bulbs that are switched “on” and “off” with the encoding and stabilization of memory. These light-bulbs, which signify epigenetic marks, can be turned on or turned off by biochemical processes such as methylation or chromatin structure modification. As their gene expression shifts, their long-term physiology and function are also altered, storing learned information acquired throughout our lives. To Moll, this piece is a tribute to the processes quietly at work between our ears as we learn, experience, grow, and remember. It also highlights the very personal and private nature of genetics as it relates to the identity of the individual.

Work by Eve Moll, Vanderbilt University Undergraduate, majoring in Neuroscience and Communication of Science and Technology.

These works reflect questions explored by fantastic science-artists such as Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Koby Barhad. Heather Dewey-Hagborg as an information artist and bio-hacker, is most noted for her project Stranger Visions. This work is a series of portraits created from DNA samples she obtained from discarded items, such as hair, cigarettes and chewing gum while living in Brooklyn, New York. She sequenced the DNA at the Brooklyn open biotechnology laboratory, Genspace. From this, she was able to determine the gender, ethnicity and other factors of the individual to whom the DNA belonged. She then used face-generating software and a 3D printer to create a 3D portrait of the stranger from whom she collected genetic material. Her work brings to questions many issues with genetic privacy, although she also mentions the limitations in accurately reconstructing a person only from their DNA sample using today’s technology. Koby Barhad also pushed genetic identity and privacy boundaries by using Elvis’ DNA to engineer two mouse-Elvis hybrids. Purchasing Elvis’s hair off eBay, he sent the hair sample to a gene sequencing lab to identify behavioral traits in areas including sociability, athletic performance, obesity, and addiction. Taking it a step further, Barhad created a series of experimental conditions that would simulate Elvis’ life experiences for the mice. These experiments begin to test the boundaries on genetics heredity versus environmental influence, but also bring to question Elvis’s privacy rights. In an interview with Wired (UK) magazine, Barhad discussing the many questions that his work raises including issues like “when does a person become mythologized to the point where they are more of a symbol than a human” or “can someone ‘own’ another’s DNA if they purchase it.”

With these questions in mind, ArtLab is having an open a call for submission for work that explores genetic privacy and identity. ArtLab is particularly interested in work that explores one (or more) of the following categories: identity in the genetic resolution, Direct-to-consumer advertising for genetic testing, issues of diversity in genetic testing. Submission remains open until September 2018. Please send the submission to with the title “Submission; Genetic Privacy and Identity.”



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