bioephemera

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I think DNA is amazing. I think biotech inspires great design. And if you’ve read this blog at all, you know I love sciart. But I just cannot understand the new infogenetics product from DNA 11 – the company behind that trendy gel electrophoresis wall art. While I’d normally just say “I don’t get it” and move on, DNA 11 claims that their “augmented art” is “the ultimate intersection of biology, art and technology.” I don’t know how that could get more squarely in the BioE wheelhouse. So let’s take a closer look at how, exactly, biology and art intersect in the “Ancestry Portrait” (pictured above in a photo from the DNA 11 website).


DNA 11 says its new “Ancestry Portraits” are “where your genetic lineage is encoded to create a one-of-a-kind canvas art piece.” But so far as I can tell, the “art piece” you get isn’t an image of your genetic code, or even an image of an electrophoresis gel containing your chopped-up DNA (which is DNA 11’s flagship product). It’s definitely not a symbolic painting of DNA conceived by an artist. It’s a computer-generated QR code – one of those little square codes that recently started popping up in ads to link smartphone users to more information.

DNA 11’s website explains that when you point a smartphone QR reader app at your $440 “Ancestry Portrait,” you will be directed to a custom webpage describing your mtDNA haplogroup. (DNA 11 obtains your genetic information via home cheek swab kit, like other direct-to-consumer testing outlets). So what’s on the page? A genetic family tree? Pages of genetic code? DNA 11 says, “On your Personal Ancestry page you will find a description of your haplogroup outlining your ancestral heritage and a map demonstrating the migration pattern your ancestors took after diverting from the original Homo sapiens in Africa.”

Um. . . so it doesn’t even sound like you’ll get your actual SNP sequences – just one of several dozen* standard descriptions/maps. (*the number would depend how in-depth they go on the haplogroup – the example on their website just says “group H,” so not very).

The “Ancestry Portrait” itself is, so far as I can tell from the company website, just a QR code representing the address of that personalized webpage. DNA 11 promises to generate the address from a combination of your order number and your mtDNA: “Your sequenced DNA gives us a string of numbers and letters that represent gene sequences. This string of letters and numbers is combined with your personal serial number to create a unique website address.” But we don’t know how that combination is accomplished, or how much personal genomic information it includes. What we do know is you are getting is a giant barcode that directs you to a URL. And you’re supposed to hang this on your wall.

To illustrate the principle for those unfamiliar with QR codes, I used a free website to make a one for BioE. Here it is:

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The grid above is just an unnecessarily complex way of saying “http://www.scienceblogs.com/bioephemera.” (You can test it with your smartphone – go ahead.) Does it look kinda cool? Sure – QR codes are still new enough to look sleek, tech-y and dataviz-y. But in a year or so, assuming the technology catches on, they may look no hotter or sleeker than a giant UPC from a cereal box. Can you imagine putting a giant barcode on your wall?

Some of you may retort “yes, I darn well would put a barcode on my wall! In fact, I already have one and it’s awesome!” Okay – you got me. I, too, can imagine artistic renderings of barcodes that would be effective on a gallery (or living room) wall. But those artworks would probably critically comment on the commercial function of most barcodes. Encoding unique aspects of your DNA in the shorthand generally used for pricing goods would be a different statement than simply reproducing your chemical genetic code (ATGCTCA, etc.). It would repackage you (or at least your genetic information) as a commodity. That would raise interesting questions about information, privacy, individuality, creepiness – all good topics for some provocative sciart, right?

If the “Ancestry Portrait” captured everything relevant and important about your DNA in a 2-D image, like a powerful, GATTACA-esque virtual fingerprint, it might be subversively exciting. But it’s just a barcode (DNA 11 actually describes it as “a personal, scannable barcode”) that links to a webpage. Essentially, it represents a giant wall URL. I’m sorry: if I wanted a giant URL on my wall, I’d have stenciled one on there already. (I like fonts!) And while DNA 11 says the QR code represents “a gateway from the physical art piece to the secrets of your ancestry it is created from,” I say, “huh?” I’ve never heard a QR code encoding a URL described as a “gateway to secrets” before. In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – and thus could appear like a “gateway to secrets” (cue eerie music) – but you’d have to be one intransigent Luddite (with a smartphone?!?) to not know how linking works.

Maybe I’m being way too critical. But for a product that starts at $440, I demand a lot (I could almost buy an iPad for that!) Here’s my suggestion: if you think the “Ancestry Portrait” is cool, but you don’t have $440, try some DIY wall art. Make a QR code (it takes 2 seconds using any of number of free online generators) based on the URL of your personal website, facebook page, tumblr, twitter, flickr, etc. Print it out on a large format printer, or, even better, trace it and paint it on canvas. It’ll look like the “Ancestry Portrait.” But instead of linking to a webpage about your mtDNA haplotype, it’ll direct viewers’ smartphones to content you create – content that says so much more about who you are, what you love, and how you’re changing over time than any string of nucleotides can. If you know a little html, you could make an easter egg webpage that your guests will encounter if they scan your wall art with their smartphone – your favorite poem, Shakespeare play, Rick Astley video, etc. If you don’t know html, you can embed a text message in the QR code. Regardless, you can probably come up with something most of your friends and guests would find more exciting than a map showing your long-dead ancestors’ migratory paths. As a bonus, if you use your own domain, you can personally ensure that your artsy QR code will continue pointing to something real on the web several years from now – not to a “server not found” error. I’m just sayin’, sometimes websites go away.

In the end, while there is a biology (genetic testing) element to the “Ancestry Portrait,” you’re mainly paying for the QR code and website. This is made clear by the special discounted price for customers who’ve already been tested by another company (like 23andme, which, incidentally, also tests mtDNA haplogroups). If you already have your genetic data in hand, you can save a whopping $150 on your $440 “Ancestry Portrait.” I leave it to you to decide if $290 for the QR code and webpage is a good deal or not. But in my humble opinion, this is not “the ultimate intersection of biology, art and technology”; it’s not even what I call “art.” Decor or industrial design, maybe, but art, not so much.

Anyway, you probably guessed I’m not getting an “Ancestry Portrait” anytime soon. But that hardly means you shouldn’t – maybe you think I’m way off base (we are talking about home decor, which is a highly subjective thing). If ancestry is your passion, and the product sounds good to you, go ahead. You’ll know you’re getting something that will make people ask “what is that all about?” And for the ancestry aficionado who has everything else, why not?

On the other hand, if you come to my house, be wary: giant QR codes are far, far more likely to lead to rickrolls than haplogroups. Fair warning.