Billboards Use DNA to Identify and Shame Litterers

By Carl Engelking | May 21, 2015 3:26 pm
DNA billboards

(Credit: Ogilvy)

The litterbugs that make the world their personal dumpster can no longer hide in the shadows, thanks to an alarming and futuristic ad campaign.

If you toss an empty coffee cup or cigarette butt onto the street in Hong Kong, you could find a computer-generated image of your face plastered on a billboard at a bus stop. Thanks to a technique called DNA phenotyping, it’s now possible to digitally sketch a person’s face based on telltale genetic markers, which is a useful tool for criminal investigators and environmental activists alike.

The Face of Litter

Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs is a company on the cutting edge of DNA phenotyping, and they provided the sketches for “The Face of Litter” campaign organized by Hong Kong Cleanup and the advertising company Ogilvy. The technique uses an algorithm to predict how specific genes, which play a role in face shape, eye color and even freckles, will be expressed based on an anonymous person’s DNA.

DNA phenotyping is still in its infancy, so the portraits aren’t mirror images by any means. Furthermore, the technique can’t determine a person’s age from DNA, so campaign organizers fit litterbugs into age groups based on the type of trash discarded and the neighborhood it was found in.

As a result, litterbugs’ identities will remain largely unknown. And organizers say they sought individuals’ permission to use their DNA in this way. But it’s not hard to extrapolate to a future where every bit of discarded DNA is not only sequenceable but traceable to your very appearance.

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  • Steven Pelech

    The concept that a person’s likeness can be identified beyond gender, ethnicity and a few major facial features seems highly improbable. As pointed out in the recent Nature Genetics publication by Danielle Posthuma and her colleagues in their analysis of 2,750 publications that studied nearly 18,000 traits in identical twins and pairs of fraternal twin, environment factors are equally important to genetics in the manifestation of these characteristics. The efforts of a company such as Parabon Nanolabs to generate facial information from DNA data is laudable, but in my opinion much too premature for prime time use. Considering the small size of this company and its parallel programs on therapeutics development, it is hard to envision that it has the expertise and resources to provide little more than a very crude profile.

    In a rather homogeneous population such as what occurs in Hong Kong, with people of principally Chinese descent, it is even harder to fathom how mixed DNA fragments, which would be recovered from collected garbage that would be cross contaminated could yield even basic reliable information about specific individuals. Not surprisingly, the posters shown in the Hong Kong campaign seem to all show young, bald Chinese men. Even on the Parabon Nanolabs website, the computer generated faces based on DNA data do not really closely resemble actual photographs of people from which the DNA was obtained.

    It seems to me that the Hong Kong campaign to stop littering in its streets to shame the perpetrators based on DNA profiling is based on much too limited science. Its effectiveness will really only come from fear from an uneducated population about what is possible with DNA profiling. Unfortunately, this will only serve to further confuse the general public about the limitations and applications of DNA-based forensics.

    Perhaps, one day when the entire population of humans in a society has their genomes completely sequenced, it might be feasible to identify the previous presence of individuals from their shed DNA trails. However, in the future, I trust the police forces will use such technology more to hunt down murderers and hardcore criminals as opposed to litterbugs.

  • monicakei

    junk science

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