The direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andme has recently been described by journalist Erika Check Hayden as a “unicorn.”1 For Hayden, this Silicon Valley idiom describes the company’s one billion dollar valuation while also capturing the rare opportunity it affords to scientists: its two million customers make up the largest available pool of gene-linked health data.2 The home testing kit’s packaging does little to disrupt visual continuities with popular imaginings of unicorns: a matte, velvety white box has been striped along one edge with rainbow chromosomal pairs, their neat, parallel lines forming a multihued mane.
23andme’s use of saturated fields of color and streamlined, graphic shapes may seem part and parcel of 21st-century advertising and design trends favoring a minimalist aesthetic, sleek shapes, and bright pops of color. However, this visual style has long played a role in representations of genetic material in popular visual culture and scientific literature from the 1950s to today.
These images, particularly their use of simplified shapes and solid colors, help shape popular conceptions of ancestry, genetic disease, and hereditary traits as fixed and quantifiable, when in fact the expression of genetic traits remains mutable and dependent on myriad factors, such as individual bodily differences, environment, and immunity.
Images have played an essential role in learning about genetics since the 1950s. While nineteenth-century scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin pointed to the observable inheritance of physical traits in offspring, the mechanisms that facilitated heredity could only be identified through processes of visualization. Raymond Gosling’s Photograph 51, taken while he was working under chemist Rosalind Franklin in 1952, famously revealed these mechanisms by bringing the structure of DNA to light.
From Photograph 51, James Watson and Francis Crick used 3D modeling techniques — once again relying on visualization — to demonstrate DNA’s now well-known double-helix organization. The identification of this structure, particularly the double strands of paired bases, allowed scientists to understand how DNA stores genetic information, replicates itself and produces proteins used by the body.3
From this knowledge, cultural ideas about DNA as getting at the truth of biology and bodies have proliferated in both science and popular culture. For example, Watson, who went on to head the Human Genome Project, famously declared that “our fate is in our genes.”4 Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee describe this phenomenon as “genetic essentialism,” where DNA explains identity, what diseases we get, what we look like, and even how we participate in our familial and cultural networks.5
Yet genetic expression is not this straightforward. Genes can be turned on and off. Behavior can alter gene expression. Sometimes different genes can produce the same effects in different bodies, and sometimes the same genes express differently in different bodies. Mutations happen. And junk DNA seems to do nothing at all.6
Picturing Genetic Destiny
Despite these complicated understandings of genomics, visual culture continues to present a simplified version of genetic essentialism, relying heavily on the shape of the double helix, the stylized x-shape of chromosomal pairs, and, like 23andme’s packaging, bright, solid colors. The February 17, 2003 cover of Time, whose cover story celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick’s paper, offers a good example.
A nude man and woman, a modern incarnation of Adam and Eve, stand side by side. DNA’s double helix, represented simply as two metallic, gold strands, ensnares both bodies; as it rises above their heads, it transforms into tree branches, invoking the biblical stories of creation and the Garden of Eden. These figures are trapped by their DNA, which is granted a spiritual authority over their bodies through its conflation with the tree of knowledge.
The delimiting cage of DNA’s spiral presents their physical traits as fixed, perhaps long before they were born, by an authority no less than a Judeo-Christian God. Significantly, this kind of image was not isolated to popular magazines; the logo for the Human Genome Project deploys almost identical visual conventions, containing a human figure behind the gold and blue bars of DNA’s double helix.
A poster produced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) advertising a conference on human gene therapy offers an example of these visual conventions aimed at a scientific audience. Three solid, cobalt blue chromosomes are depicted in the stylized x-shape, shorthand for chromosomal pairs. In the left-most pair, a bright red slice representing a faulty gene has been removed, leaving an empty space in the arm of the chromosome.
The second chromosomal pair sees a green gene — the antithesis of red in cultural associations between red and green, stop and go, bad and good — take the red one’s place, slated to be inserted into the empty space. The third pair shows that the therapy has been successful — the good gene has now been integrated into the patient’s DNA. A small arrow points from that third pair to a schematic representation of a human body, rendered in the same shade of blue, visual style, and almost the same size as the pairs.
Using fields of saturated colors formed into bold shapes, this diagrammatic rendering of gene therapy presents the technique as fairly straightforward: remove the bad gene, insert the good gene, therapy successful. And while gene therapy often seems straightforward in theory, we know this is not the case. The spliced gene’s successful integration and subsequent expression will also depend on the splicing techniques and materials used, the patient’s immune response, and their environment.7
Perhaps most significantly, while the poster and the conference it advertised seek to explore ways to escape the finality of genes-as-destiny through gene therapy, their representation of chromosomal pairs and the human body in almost identical sizes, shapes, and colors suggest that they are effectively one and the same. Bodies are still ultimately their genes, which can be isolated and replaced as easily as the viewer can discern red from green. Relying on the same visual conventions as Time, the Human Genome Project, and 23andme, the poster betrays a genetic essentialism not unlike like Time’s Adam and Eve.
Genes Get Personal
More recently, people have begun seeing illustrations of their own genetic material through the rise of home testing kits like 23andme. Unsurprisingly, the same saturated hues on the kit’s packaging reappear when users receive their results. Solid fields of color help users link geographical regions to a slice of an ancestral pie graph as well as individuated genes on numbered chromosomes. The results visually establish direct relationships between geography, identity, and genetic material.
In kits where a health analysis has been included, contrasting colors help isolate individual genes that might put a person at risk for experiencing or passing down certain diseases. Once again, bright colors guide the eye from the offending base pairs on a schematic representation of DNA to the potential disease outcome. While the text of the kit’s report emphasizes that these are not medical diagnoses, but rather potential outcomes, the use of matching colors to visually link gene and disease outcome, or gene and geography, reinforce a degree of certainty.
Tensions between visual certainty and genetic information’s status as probable and tentative are particularly present in identifications of people’s ancestry, where the kit’s text does little to acknowledge ambiguity. With all of the moving, mixing, and shifting of populations that has occurred across time and around the world, what does it actually mean to say one is Iberian? North African? Southern Mediterranean? As work in the humanities tells us, these identities are more constructed than self-evident, more fluid than static.
Recent public dialogues about race and genetics, while distinct from discussions of genetics and ancestry, further attest to tensions between perceived fixity and the instability of identity groups. In a March 23, 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, David Reich called for the reconsideration of genetic bases for some race differences. In response, a group of 67 scholars published an open letter decrying efforts to locate biological race on the genome, calling attention to decades of scholarship that “recognizes the existence of geographically based genetic variation in our species, but shows that such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race. Nor does that variation map precisely onto ever-changing socially defined racial groups.”
Returning to 23andme, it is only by leaving the generated results report and reading their more detailed scientific reports on methods that we learn how these ancestry thresholds are determined and the ways that biases in medicine’s history — and the company’s customer base — make reporting more accurate and detailed for customers of European descent. This is not to say that the information at-home tests reveal is disingenuous or wrong or unreliable. It is rather to suggest that categories like ancestry or the risk of a genetic disease are not as simple, straightforward, or quantifiable as the color coordination between world maps and genes appears. Thinking otherwise would be pinning your hopes on a unicorn.
- Erika Check Hayden, “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of 23andMe,” Nature News 550, no. 7675 (October 12, 2017): 174, doi:10.1038/550174a. Return to text.
- Check Hayden, “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again.” Return to text.
- Leslie Pray, “Discovery of DNA Structure and Function: Watson and Crick,” Nature Education (2008). Return to text.
- James Watson qtd. in Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as Cultural Icon, (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 2004): 7. Return to text.
- Nelkin and Lindee, The DNA Mystique, 2. Return to text.
- Ibid., 4. Return to text.
- Deirdre M. O’Connor and Nicholas M. Boulis, “Gene Therapy for Neurodegenerative Diseases,” Trends in Molecular Medicine 21, no. 8 (August 2015): 504, doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2015.06.001. Return to text.