Thursday, January 28, 2016

3D-Printed Faces Constructed Using DNA

As mankind advances, so does technology and experimental methods. In New York City an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been able to created 3D-printed human faces using small traces of DNA collected from crowded public places. Hagborg is able to collect the human DNA from cigarette butts, chewing gum, and strands of human hair. She begins her process by taking the DNA sample she has collected to a biotechnology lab located in Brooklyn where she can then obtain the sequencing information. When this has been done she runs the information through a computer program and creates a 3D-printed model of the face using the DNA she found.

Hagborg with one of her 3D-printed models. 

However, creating the 3D models does have limitations. From the DNA sequence provided it is unclear of the person’s age and each model is not exactly identical to the person who’s DNA it was made from.

Hagborg’s main point in doing her project is that with today’s technology a single strand of hair can reveal someone’s genetic information. She believes that because of this, precautions must be taken regarding genetic surveillance as technology advances. 

From a forensic science viewpoint, I think that what Hagborg is doing could help improve forensic facial reconstruction.  With Hagborg’s method, those performing the facial reconstruction would not require a human skull and instead only need a single piece of DNA. While it is important to remember the 3D-printed face will not look exactly the face of the person the DNA was collected from, it could easily assist in identifying suspects in ongoing cases. In addition to known factors such as the age and height of a suspect, Hagborg’s method could aid in determining more about the facial profile of suspect being pursued.

This video briefly covers how facial reconstruction is currently done.

As far as genetic surveillance is concerned, I find it impossible to entirely protect your own DNA. Just walking down the street the average person sheds both their hair and skin. In addition to this, the average person also does not have 24/7 access to a 3D printer and biotechnology lab. Even if they did and could create models like Hagborg, what would they then do with the inaccurate model you created? If anything I find it disturbing that the Brooklyn biotechnology lab allows Hagborg to bring in the random DNA she has found with the intent to create a 3D model of the person’s face. Maybe if there is to be a movement to increase genetic privacy it should start with biotechnology labs preventing this sort of thing. 


  1. Morgan, this is such an awesome post! I had no idea that so much could be determined just from one single cigarette butt or strand of hair. I understand these things contain one of a kind DNA, but it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that so much information, such as facial structure, can be revealed from something so small. You made a great point by saying this could help with forensic facial reconstruction. This could really help by reconstructing a face of a criminal from just one single piece of DNA. The only downfall of this would be that the DNA could not determine the person's age at the time, but it could still reveal the prominent structures of the face to the point where the person could be identified. I agree with you that protecting your own DNA seems a bit ridiculous. It is nearly impossible not to leave DNA everywhere one goes, so how could one possibly stop this? The concept of this is amazing, but scary at the same time. It does not make sense that Hagborg would be allowed to pick random DNA off the streets and recreate their face, without their knowledge or consent. Besides this ethical issue, the science behind it is groundbreaking. I love how you posted that video, it really made it clear and a bit more interesting for the reader. Great post!!

  2. Morgan, this was something that really caught my eye ! As soon as I read the title I HAD to continue reading! It's just so amazing to read that this scientist is able to print a 3-D image of a person by simply using DNA from a chewed gum for example! That's just really cool because this is something that could be used in Criminal Justice to find what serial killers looked like or something likewise. Really cool post. Thanks for sharing !