DNA portraits: as personal as art can get

Have a framed snapshot of your DNA on your wall.

Confessional poetry, tell-all memoirs, painted self portraits and thinly veiled autobiographical novels are all intensely personal works of art, but none comes close to what the company DNA 11 can create for you.

The company, co-founded by a graphic designer and a molecular geneticist, makes high-quality portraits of its customers' DNA, ready to be proudly displayed in the living room or office.

"DNA is the most unique element in all of us. What we produce is a person's life code as a piece of art," says Adrian Salamunovic, the co-founder with the artistic background. "It doesn't get any more unique than that."

Salamunovic came up with the idea on a whim, after seeing some DNA images produced by his childhood friend Nazim Ahmed at work, a biotech company specializing in digital biological imaging.

"I have a design and marketing background with very limited knowledge of genetics and when I saw these DNA images I saw art," Salamunovic explains.

Ahmed liked the idea of commercializing DNA portraits as art, but figured it would be nothing more than a side gig for him and his friend.

However, since starting the company in 2005, they have sold thousands of portraits worldwide and employ seven full-time staffers. So, yes, Ahmed and Salamunovic quit their day jobs early on.

None other than New York's Museum of Modern Art carries DNA art in their store and the portraits have also been featured in an episode of the hit CBS television show CSI:NY (Crime Scene Investigation: New York.)

Their DNA art products, which range in price from US$169 for Mini Portraits to $1,200 for the most expensive regular portraits, hold broad appeal.

Portraits have been sold to celebrities, big-name CEOs and regular folks of all ages. Some couples have asked for their respective DNA images to be blended into one portrait. Proud owners of Fido and Whiskers have sent in samples of their pets' DNA. "We're never surprised," Salamunovic says. "We have such a wide range of customers."

What the customers have in common is appreciation for the unique and for art, Salamunovic says. "We create one of the world's most unique products: art that happens to be portraits made from a sample of your DNA," he says.

That, of course, could give pause to people concerned about privacy, since, as we all know, our DNA holds very sensitive information about our bodies, including our predisposition to certain health problems.

The DNA 11 co-founders from the start designed their business with these concerns in mind. People get their DNA sample by swabbing the inside of a cheek and sending the kit back to the company, which in turns forwards that to the external lab it works with. The sample is identified only with a serial number and, shortly after the customer gets the portrait, the entire kit is destroyed.

Moreover, the portrait is made from snippets of a person's genome and there is no way to reverse-engineer the image to come up with revealing information about the subject, Ahmed says. Although the appearance of DNA 11's art in a CSI:NY episode helps to crack a case, the scenario is poetic license.

That is not to say that the scientific element gets short thrift at the expense of art. DNA 11 offers customers what it calls the GenePak option, which can isolate four specific genes: the "sports" gene called ACTN2, expressed in all of a person's muscle cells; the "brain" gene, called IGF-2 and associated with intelligence; the "love" gene, called NGF2, which triggers romantic feelings; and the "hair" gene, called MC1R, which determines hair color.

GenePak portraits also come with a booklet that explains the lab process and the genetic significance of the piece. But even without the GenePak, Ahmed feels that DNA 11 portraits implicitly help advance knowledge and awareness about genetics.

"Our artwork is very much an introduction to genomics through a medium to which everyone can relate to, which is art," he says. "Exposure to genomics at a very interactive, entertaining level sparks people's interest to learn more about genetics."

So, if penning a string of lachrymose verses doesn't quite give that aesthetic catharsis you're seeking, and if pouring it all out to your journal fails to deliver an emotional release, it might be handy to have a framed snapshot of your DNA on the wall that you can point at and know that piece of art is, literally, you, and no one else.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service

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