TED Talk: Gabe Garcia-Colombo – My DNA Vending Machine

The worlds of science and art do not always see eye to eye.  Many people feel that they are almost mutually exclusive.  If you’re artistic, you don’t understand math and science.  If you’re a science geek, you don’t have an artistic bone in your body (in addition to the other 206).  These fields seem as opposite as protons and electrons or Othello and Iago.

The truth is not so black and white.  Creative folks have to employ a knowledge of their materials.  STEM nerds need creativity to figure out the hows and whys of the world.  One lesson I try to instill in my students is that the scientific method, that dry series of steps we’re forced to memorize since elementary school, is actually how people inherently learn and solve problems.

This post is the first in a series I will write on the subject of creativity in the science classroom.  My goal is for students to explore their own creativity and for instructors to see the utility of these types of lessons.

Many of us have extracted DNA from strawberries.  Gabe Garcia-Colombo, the artist in the video, was inspired by this process to have DNA extraction parties with his friends.  Taking it a step further, he has created a vending machine at which you can purchase a vial of someone else’s DNA.

This video would be a good assignment after a DNA extraction lab, whether from strawberries or from students’ cells.  Once they see how easy it is to obtain DNA, a larger impact discussion can occur about genetic rights.

Questions for students:

  • What did Gabe Garcia-Colombo do after he was inspired by DNA extractions?
  • Describe the DNA vending machine.
  • What are some pros for having DNA vending machines?  For instance, would the public benefit somehow from these machines?
  • What are some cons for having DNA vending machines?  Could these machines somehow harm the people buying the DNA or the donors supplying the DNA?
  • Would you buy someone’s DNA out of the vending machine?  Would you supply your own?  If you would supply your own, would you donate your DNA or ask for some money?
  • Name 3 things you could do with someone else’s DNA?  What resources would you need?
  • How should ownership of DNA work?  Should it be like property or intellectual property?

Students may leap to the possibility of cloning a human from their DNA which may be a discussion for another class.  The big ideas that students should recognize is that owning a person’s genetic code is both intimate and limited.  It is intimate because that code is present in nearly every cell in that person’s body.  But it is also limited in that you have to have access to sequencing technology to decipher the code, and even then our ability to predict phenotypes (traits or medical history) are not very strong at the moment.

Another issue to raise is more nefarious:  framing someone with their DNA as evidence.  Ask students how this may be achieved and what sort of steps could be taken to avoid this problem.

Gabe Garcia-Colombo’s innovative DNA vending machine raises interesting questions in the burgeoning age of personalized genomics.  That’s what a little creativity can do for science.

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