The Art of Science: DNA Prints and Blankets

If your genetic make-up were a colour, what would it be? And how would it differ from your partner’s? Well, artist-turned-scientist Iona Inglesby decided to find out, and turned it into a clever, creative business…

Iona Inglesby, 26, was born in Sunderland and now lives in Hackney. She is founder of Dot One – creating personalised homeware products based on DNA profiling. Here, she discusses that – and how discovering that we’re all 99.9% genetically identical should make us rethink ethnicity.

You studied Design Products at the Royal College of Art, what tools did this give you for setting up Dot One?
The RCA was full of diverse, amazing people who greatly influenced my life. Whilst studying there I took part in a synthetic biology workshop organised by a fellow student which took place at Imperial College. This really reignited my love for biology and triggered the project which became ‘Dot One’.

I thought having a design background would be a disadvantage in starting up a company as my knowledge of business and finance was minimal but actually having the skills to build websites, conduct film/photoshoots, illustrate and design the artwork/branding and packaging myself was actually essential for getting Dot One off the ground. With the help of business mentors and books I am learning the rest!

Have you always been interested in genetics?
Genetics is a relatively new obsession but I have always been interested in science. My parents both have medical backgrounds and it was normal to have scientific conversations around the dinner table. I even used to build my dad’s old medical skeleton as a game when I was little and study his anatomy books. Although I did a design degree; my A-Levels were in biology, mathematics and art.. which all makes sense now!

Highlighting the fact that we are all 99.9% genetically identical is an amazing way to help you to relate to others and understand the futility of creating such divides between ethnicities

At what stage did you start combining science and art?
It wasn’t until my last year at the RCA, when I was reviewing my work, that I saw a common trend throughout everything I had designed. I would discover a piece of information; a fact, a statistic, which I thought was incredible, and would take it from its raw form and use storytelling and design as a way to communicate the data in a tangible, relatable way.

What was the starting point for Dot One; where did the idea originate?
The idea came about whilst I was studying product design at the Royal College of Art, working on a project with a Scottish weaving company who had a huge catalogue of tartan fabrics. I was interested in how each Scottish family had a material affiliated to their name, and yet when I asked about the reason for the colours and patterns of the tartans there was no meaning behind them. I wanted to create a material that intrinsically represented a family and so decided to explore the idea of using genetics as a language to code the weaving pattern creating a sort of ‘DNA tartan’.

When researching how to translate DNA into something ‘weavable’, during the Imperial College London workshop, I learnt that scientists were testing DNA as a storage device for binary data. Weaving is essentially a binary process and so I saw a way to relate these things using one as an input and the other as an output for data.

DNA profiling

What research was involved in creating the technology that determines our genetic make-up?
I had read that humans were 99.9% identical and so to create unique products I needed to explore the part of our genes which make up the remaining 0.1%. [where the name ‘Dot One’ comes from]. I started researching companies which used DNA testing for forensics and identification purposes and found Alpha BioLabs who are at the forefront of this in the UK. The science is all there for the taking – the price of genetic technology is decreasing at such a rate that it is becoming more and more accessible to the public. The company we use provide legal standard DNA testing for single identity purposes but also for things like paternity testing for members of the public.

Dot One uses DNA Profiling which is just looking at a fragment of the whole genome. But to use Genome Sequencing (as an example of accessibility) – in 2001 the price of having your whole genome sequenced was $100m. In 2015, a company are selling this service for $1000!

DNA Profiling is available to anyone using companies like AlphaBioLabs – we simply utilise this service and the data it provides. Our difference is that we designed an algorithm, a python script, which converts this raw genetic data into coloured visuals that we use to design the products.

Can you talk us through the process – from saliva swab, to DNA profiling, to creating colours, to turning it into artwork?
The customer receives an at-home DNA test kit which includes an information booklet about Dot One, sterile swabs and laboratory consent form. The customer takes their own cheek swab and sends it straight to the laboratory for DNA profiling. We receive the results in a secure digital format 48 hours later and run them through our algorithm to generate the customer’s unique print. This is either to be woven by our partner weave studio Helen Foot Design, or printed. All products come with an illustrated guide to genetics and DNA profiling.

How does it work with the DNA family tree – what’s involved, what can you determine, how does the final piece look?
The DNA Family Trees look similar to traditional family trees but they visualise which parts of people’s genetic data have been transferred from one generation to another. We inherit exactly 50% of our DNA from our mother and 50% from our father but if you step back another generation then the percentage split becomes varied. For example: from the 50% of our DNA from your mother, 75% of this 50% might be from your grandfather, 25% of this 50% might be from your grandmother. We represent this using coloured bands so that you can see how the colours are diluted down the generational line.

DNA_family_tree

For siblings we can see how much of the DNA profile data is shared which is usually between 40-80%. Identical twins are 100% genetically identical so their designs will look exactly the same.

We know that genetics determine colouring, size, shape and other exterior traits. Have you found that family members might share internal traits, while looking quite different from the outside?
Genetics determines much more than physical traits, although it is responsible for the way we look. Due to extensive and on-going genetic research there is a much broader understanding into how our genetics affect many ‘non physical’ parts of us such as aspects of our personality, our immunity to diseases, our drug responses, our ability to metabolise different foods etc. There are companies such as 23andme who provide a service for people wanting to explore this, it’s fascinating!

So yes, I do think that being genetically similar doesn’t have to manifest itself in purely physical attributes.

What are your feelings on the nature/nurture debate – how much is biological, how much is environmental?
There are arguments for both sides of this debate. Undoubtedly environment plays a huge part in the development of the person. However, from broadening case studies amongst twins and families in general, research highlights a much more powerful influence from genetics than first thought. For example, why two siblings with almost identical upbringings in the same family environment may turn out so different, or twins separated at birth and raised by two different families may turn out to be extremely similar in some fundamental aspects of their personality.

DNA blanket

You explain on your website that humans are 99.9% genetically identical to one another. Has this project changed the way you see yourself in relation to others?
I think it’s a pretty topical point at the moment – about ethnicity in the context of people’s approach to immigration. My mother is Irish and on my paternal side they were all Dutch Jews – yet I was born in UK. So what does that make me? And does it even matter?

People as communities are fluid, there has always been migration from over 60,000 years ago when the first recorded Modern Humans left Africa and journeyed into Asia and Europe and continually ever since. Whether it has been a result of extreme climate change or war, people have constantly moved around which is why the world is so full of such interesting and diverse people. I think that highlighting the fact that we are all 99.9% genetically identical is an amazing way to look at the person next to you, to help you to relate to others and understand the futility of creating such divides between ethnicities.

Do you have ideas for extending Dot One further, or for beginning new projects?
Yes. Looking at partnering with some big genetics companies to give their customers access to Dot One products using the data they already have. Also developing an app and more digital products to go with the existing physical ones.

Any other comments on art/science/Dot One…?
Part of the my idea for the company is to use design as a platform to do some work within the healthcare industry. We are looking to partner with a charity or research group in the field of inherited genetic diseases so that a percentage of profits from Dot One will being donated to this as well. Also, we’re hoping to develop some communicative projects around these issues; to better public engagement in science through design.

Dot One

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