A company is using people's DNA to shame them for littering

A Virginia-based genetics technology company and a Hong Kong ad agency are using the DNA people leave behind on their litter to print computer-generated images of their faces on wanted posters.

The company’s first project launched last month in Hong Kong, reports the South China Morning Post. Yet the science behind the idea has existed for years.

In 2012, New York City-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg used the same technology to make sculptures of complete strangers using only the tiny bits of DNA left on discarded cigarettes and chewing gum that she collected from the streets of New York.

Her exhibit, called “Stranger Visions,” has been shown in galleries across the world.

Dewey hagborg face sculpturesBiogenfutures/VimeoHeather Dewey-Hagborg looking at one of her sculptures at an exhibit.

Each piece of trash that Dewey-Hagborg collected was rich in genetic data, typically in the form of DNA encased in dried spit or inside pieces of hair and skin.

To isolate that DNA, she did a simple lab procedure (so simple, I’ve done it myself) at a small community lab in Brooklyn. Then, using a computer program designed by researchers at Penn State, she combed through all the DNA and picked out only the genes that code for physical traits, like hair and eye colour.

Next, she used the trait information to create a 3D model of each person’s face.

In addition to hair and eye colour, these bits of our DNA dictates the shade of our skin, the width of our noses, and the distance between our eyes, but they can’t tell how old or physically fit we are, for example.

Using her computer’s 3D modelling software and a 3D printer, Dewey-Hagborg printed sculptures of each face:

While the masks aren’t exact likenesses of the people they’re based on, they do display what Dewey-Hagborg calls a “family resemblance.”

Unlike Dewey-Hagborg’s artwork, which turns people’s leftover DNA into three-dimensional sculptures, the Hong Kong campaign is using the genetic information they have collected to create giant, life-size wanted posters.

The project is a collaboration between marketing communications agency Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong and the genetic technology company Parabon Nanolabs. Ogilvy collected pieces of local litter and sent them to Parabon Nanolabs, who used its technology to extract the DNA from each sample.

“It was intended to provoke a conversation to create positive social change for the people of Hong Kong,” Ogilvy Cheif Creative Officer Reed Collins told the South China Morning Post. “The prospect of this idea alone, we hope, will be enough to make people think twice about littering.”

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