Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits
The University of Minnesota (UMN) commissioned this portrait and the genetic ancestry DNA portraits (below) for a community research center. It shows my signature style — a person’s face on a map with their ancestors’ migration paths from deep time.
The 3 x 4-foot artwork was printed on cotton rag, archival paper with pigment inks on my large format printer. This group of portraits commissioned by UMN is the culmination of a body of work created over a six-year period (2005-2011) that included dozens of DNA portraits.
If you’re curious about the artistic vision, the making process, and explanation of the scientific data, scroll down this page for my article, “Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits: the backstory.”
“Crossing Beringia,” shown above, is a portrait of Ron, a Native American man from the Ojibwe tribe from the Northern Midwest. It includes haplogroup data from his mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome.
Follow the paths of his maternal (yellow) and paternal (blue) ancestors as they leave Africa and head north to Siberia. And then cross the submerged continent Beringia to the Americas — a journey of thousands of miles made over ten thousand-plus years.
Ron’s paternal haplogroup, M3, is the most widespread male lineage in the Americas. Nearly all Native American men are descended from this line. His female line, haplogroup A, is a deep and diverse lineage and may have arrived in the Americas 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Khao is an American originally from Laos. His portrait, “First Wave,” shows his maternal migration path, haplogroup M. They may have been the first modern humans to make a successful exodus from Africa. Members of his group headed east across the narrow span of water that separates East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.
It was the start of a long migration eastward, across the Middle East to Southern Eurasia — close to Khao’s birth home in Laos. You can see that the lineage branches with some of his ancestors continuing to settle Australia and Polynesia.
“Spiral Journey” is a portrait of Judy, an African American woman. It traces the paths of the L3 group, a lineage that arose in Africa about 80,000 years ago. They were a group of modern humans leading the out-of-Africa migrations.
Judy’s ancestors were members of a group that decided to remain in Africa — traveling west and north, spiraling around the continent’s top half. Descendants in Western Africa formed the lineage found today in many African Americans — often due to the transatlantic slave trade. Judy’s “L3e” haplogroup is also common among Afro-Brazilians and Caribbeans.
Wayne, an African American man, chose to have his DNA sequenced from his Y chromosome. His paternal Haplogroup, E1B1a (M2), is shared with most sub-Saharan Africans and many African American men.
The first genetic marker in Wayne’s lineage is “M168”. The marker locates the beginning of the migration route close to present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania in the Rift Valley region. Scientists give an approximate date of the emergence of this marker at 31,000 to 79,000 years ago.
Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits: the backstory
— By Lynn Fellman, 01.02.21, 22-minute read
It was the pairing of science and art in the National Geographic magazine on the table in my childhood home that sparked my lifelong interest in paleoanthropology.
Fossils from the Great Rift Valley hinted at our ancient origins. The marvelous paintings depicted what our ancestors may have looked like from the fossil bits. I was mesmerized.
It was the 1970s, and fossil discoveries captured my imagination. Yet, there were gaps in the stories the magazine so artfully told. Where did we come from? How did we evolve? What makes us human? The answers, like the fossil bits, were fragmented.
The magazine’s paintings were beautiful but speculative interpretations. Thanks to present-day forensic genomics, artists create scientifically accurate visualizations of our ancient ancestors. Take a look at one who has mastered the art of depicting bones and genes as stunning portraits of archaic hominids — paleo artist John Gurche.
The Genomic Era. Then, on June 26, 2000, a scientific and technological breakthrough kicked off the 21st Century and the Era of Genomics. Popular media caught the history-making excitement in 72-point bold headlines, “Scientists sequence the human genome!”
The new tech picked up the pace of discovery. Geneticists and bioinformaticists worked furiously to build the Reference Genome of human genetic variation.
Sequencing the human genome is one of the most significant of our scientific accomplishments. It was bold and audacious, and when the Reference Genome was completed in 2003, it launched genomics as the premier science of the Twenty-first Century.
The work is ongoing because current versions don’t include the entire, end-to-end sequence of all 24 chromosomes — 22 autosomes + X and Y. Work by dedicated scientists like Dr. Karen Miga.
Paleogenomics is cool. Anthropologists got busy scrutinizing genomes from living people to trace ancient lineages. A few molecular anthropologists were extracting ancient DNA from fossil bones. Could researchers from the disparate fields agree to collaborate and bring the fragmented pieces of human history together?
It wasn’t an easy transition, but the field of Paleogenomics is now a mighty combo of Genomics + Anthropology. Looking at the morphology of ancient bones and the molecular world inside them reveals details of human history, we thought unknowable.
As we recover more ancient DNA, scientists also look for variants that impact present-day human health. For example, the Neanderthal genome had mutations they passed along to early humans, allowing our ancestors to adapt to new environments. People alive today with the same variants enjoy the genetic gift from our extinct cousins. How cool is that?
Do you want to know more about our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans? Learn from one of the founders of the field of Paleogenomics, evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo. He developed best-practice methods to extract and analyze ancient DNA and understand our evolutionary history.
Dr. Paabo’s book, “Neanderthal Man,” is a terrific story about his personal and scientific journey to decipher ancient DNA to answer the big questions — How did we evolve? What made us human?
DNA tests for the rest of us? With information from the Reference Genome about our present-day biology, aligned with clues from ancient DNA — the new and old fragments were coming together. Exciting stuff, but some of us asked, “will scientists sequence everyone’s DNA?” And I wondered, “how could I get my genetic sequence?” An opportunity appeared in 2005 from the Genographic Project.
Hello, consumer genetic ancestry testing. It was an innovative collaboration between science and commerce. Geneticist-anthropologist, Dr. Spencer Wells, led the scientific team. They collected DNA samples from indigenous people around the world. The commercial partner, IBM, offered sequencing to the rest of us — the Y chromosome (paternal) and mitochondria (maternal) lineages.
Not only would we get insights into our “deep” ancestry, but we contribute to scientific research as well. The Genographic project also developed something new — the large-scale participation of ordinary, healthy people. It’s an approach that’s proved essential for biomedical science to advance.
The Genographic Project was one of the first direct-to-consumer DNA companies. Unlike its competitors, it was a global, interdisciplinary project. Part genomic, part anthropological research, the DNA collected from people around the world revealed never-seen-before patterns of human migration.
And with DNA from the public participation — the project contributed new and valuable scientific knowledge. Launched in 2005, the public involvement in the project ended in 2019.
Yahoo, I’m in! Who wouldn’t want to be part of scientific discovery? I bought a kit in September of 2005, swabbed away, and eight weeks later, my results came back. My mitochondrial DNA placed me in Haplogroup H — typical for my Swedish-German-Northern European background.
No surprise, but I was elated. My results included a graphical display of my Haplogroup as a path on the world map. It traced my lineage back through time and across continents to the common female ancestor in Africa.
It was a striking visualization of time, place, and human origins. For the first time, our biology revealed something that had been invisible to previous generations. And something else — my individual and modern DNA is universal and, at the same time, ancient. A paradox with aesthetic beauty.
What’s a Haplogroup? Some changes (mutations) in our DNA accumulate over generations. Some of the changes carry ancestry information, marking stages over time. As people moved from place to place, the markers in their DNA map out their migrations, forming a path called a haplogroup. We share paths with thousands of people. My haplogroup H is part of an extensive, Northern-Western European lineage with many branches.
Artistic inspiration. This gene story is something everyone should have, I thought. To see how we’re all connected. Get the sense of wonder I was feeling. After all, this was knowledge we thought we’d never have, a story lost in time forever! How could I communicate the experience?
I dove into drawing and writing about what I was learning — looking for a way to visualize what the research revealed about our connections through deep time and across continents. The outcome from hundreds of sketches and hours of study evolved into a new body of work — genetic ancestry DNA portraits (some shown above).
First, my friends, and later, others knocked on my door as art-buying patrons. All early and brave genome explorers — excited to get their DNA tested and have their portrait made.
Are my mutations harmful? Do the migration paths show my recent ancestry? Is everyone really from Africa? (Yes!) These were some questions my patrons asked, and I didn’t have answers. I needed to get smart (and fast) to be a better artist to make intelligent art.
Subscribing to scientific journals and reading the latest books was a start. Meeting people on the frontline of genomics research was better. So, I attended scientific conferences in the U.S. and abroad, listening and learning from the best.
Showing my work at scientific conferences also helped me to stay informed. If you attend Cold Spring Harbor Lab meetings, look for my work at the next in-person Biology of Genomes. As an artist-in-residence during the sessions, I show my current artwork and explain materials and methods.
Artistic vision. My intrepid participants found their DNA report and Haplogroup paths intriguing but mystifying. How about I put my reading and listening, and learning to good use? So when they got their test results, I explained what it meant. When I delivered the portrait, we looked at it together, and once again, I explained what science was telling them about their ancestry.
It became clear that the finished artwork needed something more. So with each new portrait, I included a written explanation of their genetic ancestry and the scientific research that provided their results.
As I began to show the genetic ancestry DNA portraits, many reacted with, “ah-ha, I get it!” Listening closely to the comments, it seemed that their DNA ancestry data, with their face, on a map of their ancestors’ migration paths made science visible-real-understandable. I discovered the power of art and story to make science personal and sometimes wonderfully profound.
It was discouraging that digital images couldn’t live in the real world as gallery-quality artwork. It was the 1990s, and there was no way to show vibrant colors other than on a display screen. Then in 2005, a new printer offered museum-quality output.
It was a giant leap and a challenging technical one. I took a course to get the know-how and bought one of the pricey, large-format printers. Testing numerous archival substrates with the specially designed pigment inks, what I saw on my display printed true and with deep, vibrant color. Yay!
The University of Minnesota commission. A biological anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Irma McClaurin, had the same “ah-ha!” response when she saw my work. As director of a new urban research and outreach center (UROC), she was looking to celebrate the diversity of the people in the neighborhoods around the Center.
Dr. McClaurin invited me to write a proposal to create artwork about their mission; “a gathering place… in an educational and cultural setting where the community and University researchers work together to improve the lives of those in urban areas.”
Proposal for Genetic Ancestry DNA Portraits. I proposed a SciArt exhibit — a science, art, and story display to communicate the layers of meaning. The portraits would have a companion storyboard showing the source of the scientific data, explaining what it means, and a biographical sketch about the portrait participant’s family and professional work.
Dr. McClaurin and I wanted to show how a diverse community of people share pre-historic lineages and to all people alive today. The exhibit was to be part of a celebration for the opening of the new UROC Center. Dr. McClaurin championed my proposal, and we got it!
Invitation to a SciArt adventure! Civic leaders from the neighborhood were selected to represent the community’s diverse demographics; African American, European, Asian, and Native American backgrounds. We sent invitations to Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva (shown above). I met with each one and explained that a DNA portrait shows how we’re all connected, through deep time, to our ancient African homeland and each other today. Everyone agreed and was eager to get started.
Speaking of diversity, the Human Reference Genome isn’t. The DNA used to build the variant library for the Reference came from white volunteers of European descent. Not having DNA from diverse populations skews science and limits medical and health benefits. It’s a big problem.
Research to the rescue! Adam Phillippy, head of the Genome Informatics Section, NHGRI, explains the development of the “Human Pan Genome.” Listen to the 35-min podcast.
The process. The first step was to order DNA kits from Genographic. When they arrived, I invited the participants to my studio for individual sessions. We opened the kits, and I helped them take their sample.
We talked about their work and leadership in the community. I made notes and sketches. And they sat in my big red chair for the photos I needed to use as a reference. After meeting with everyone, I double-checked their samples, forms, and sent all items to the lab.
Art making. Now I could get going on the artwork. It was a lot to tackle; first, sorting through photos for the best, three-quarter version of each person. I printed the photos, and with pencil and tracing paper, started drawing to get familiar with each person’s face.
A face on a map is too clinical, so with paint and brush on paper, I made texture-marks, chromosome shapes, and double helix patterns. After scanning the sketches and brush paintings, I used my digital tools to work on the composition.
It was 2009, and consumer DNA testing kits were persnickety. They had a detailed procedure to follow precisely, so I worked with each participant to cross all the Ts. After all, swabbing to get enough cells for a good sample was a new experience for everyone.
I expressed mailed the samples to make sure they arrived at the lab in Tucson, Arizona quickly, and all together. Receiving the results could take eight-to-twelve weeks, and no time to lose to finish the exhibit on time for the Center’s opening.
The July 2010 opening celebration. Full-size portraits (4 x 5 feet) were printed, framed, and hung with companion storyboards on time for UROC’s opening celebration. I gave Judy, Wayne, Ron, Khao, and Reva small versions of their portrait with the storyboard on letter-size paper.
As guests arrived, they recognized the people in the portraits, and for the evening, they were celebrities. Everyone invited friends and family, Ron asked his students. As he stood in front of his portrait, “Crossing Beringia,” he gave an interpretation of his genetic ancestry with the Ojibwa creation story. Everyone was captivated.
Some guests studiously read the storyboards. Others started spontaneous and animated conversations. I watched and listened, for this behavior was most unusual at an art opening. I learned that art and a personal story could make science intimate, relevant, and sometimes wonderfully profound.
The Genetic Ancestry DNA Portrait exhibit was on display for six months. Well received by scholars and people in the community, the exhibit remains at UROC as part of their art collection. I made another version that traveled as an exhibit to universities, libraries, and clinics around the U.S.
Finally, genomics for all-of-us. Here we are, twenty-plus-years after sequencing the human genome and deep into the Era of Genomics. Over 26 million of us have participated by using a consumer DNA test.
Focus is shifting to health and medical information — predictive and diagnostic data for disease risk and treatment options. It’s a seismic shift, for whether scrutinizing your genetic ancestry or learning about your health risks — genomic science also offers the benefits of precision medicine to improve our everyday lives.
Do you want to get in on the health-medical DNA testing action? As of 2018, anyone living in the U.S. can enroll in our national research project — the All of Us Program from the National Institute of Health (NIH). It’s free and easy to join. And it’s much more than ancestry testing.
The NIH analyze your DNA using whole-genome sequencing for health-related information, such as how your body responds to certain medications and risk for disease. The goal is to sequence over a million people. Genetic data gathered from many will guide advances for all of us. Set up an account to get started.
The portraits are historical documents. Now, twenty-years into the Era of Genomics, the deluge of data tells us much more about our individual DNA. If I added what we know today, the haplogroup paths would show a mass of branches and back migrations worldwide.
Even though the artwork’s data is simple and out-of-date, the core message hasn’t changed — Africa is our original homeland, we’re all connected. We can view the portraits as a celebration of scientific discovery — one person’s genetic ancestry layered with our species’ meta-story — an evolutionary history we thought lost in time forever.
I’ve moved on from making DNA Portraits to find new ways to show the beauty and value of science. You can see some of my recent SciArt and the Genome Stories digital book on my other website, LynnFellman.com.