Thought Leadership

Genetic art

By Colin Walls

Last week, I was writing about genetic fingerprinting. I hinted that there was another gene-related technology that had caught my attention. In the past week, I have read up some more on this topic and I am keen to share what I have found.

The subject that fascinated me was the idea of using genetics to create art …

I am very reluctant to say something is impossible, as that is just trying to predict the future, which in the world of technology is very foolish. Knowledgeable people have said some very stupid things:

“A vehicle accelerated up to 60mph would kill all passengers aboard.”

“I cannot imagine that anyone would need more than 640K of memory in their PC.”

“The worldwide market for computers will never exceed about a dozen units.”

OK, I have paraphrased and the speakers have usually qualified their statements later, but my point holds.

The story, that I heard, was that an artist had found a way to take some DNA – say a discarded hair – and extract the complete genetic code from it. Then they would use this information to make a mask – a sculpture, if you like – of the person’s face. There is more information and some images on her website.

My first thought was that this was a remarkable use of technology and an amazing fusion with art. My second thought was that it must be hoax.

I just do not believe that we have a sufficiently well-developed knowledge of the human genome that such an analysis would [yet] be possible. I think it very likely that we will at least get close to this capability in the future, but I just do not think that we are there yet. If we were, surely the police would be able to create accurate facial images of suspects, which would be a very powerful tool. To the best of my knowledge, it is not yet possible to even identify simpler characteristics from a DNA sequence: racial group, height, eye color etc. Also, archaeologists would love to be able to put a face on historical figures; currently they use artists who base their impression on skull shape.

A further issue I have is more a matter of logic. If this technique did work, and I gave the artist some of my DNA and she made an image of my face, would it be my physiognomy now, or when I was 20, or when I was born, or how I will be when [eventually] I am an old man? It seems odd that the artist seems to only produce contemporary images.

OK, I may be wrong and this technique might work as advertised. Another question would be the ethics of using genetic material in this way. I guess it is not too different from taking someone’s photo …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at