Canadian Packaging

DNA samples used to identify litterbugs

Whether it's to punish, or merely shame, Hong Kong's aggressive anti-litter campaign hunts polluters by their DNA.


April 24, 2015
by Canadian Packaging staff

RESTON, Va.—DNA left behind on litter in Hong Kong reveals a picture-perfect face of the litterer, thanks to Snapshot DNA Pehnotyping Service developed by Reston, Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs, Inc.

Parabon, working alongside marketing communications firm Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong, have Hong Kong create a public service campaign to combat littering.

As part of the 15th annual Hong Kong Cleanup Challenge, organized by Ecozine and The Nature Conservancy, Ogilvy is using Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service to reveal some of the contributors to the city’s litter epidemic – literally putting a face to the crime – while slyly adding the item used to gather the DNA sample.

In the image above, the three ‘Faces Of Litter’ were collected via DNA collected from a condom, a cigarette butt, and a wad of chewing gum.

Ogilvy targeted key locations in Hong Kong that seem to be problem areas for illegal dumping, to collect, analyze and create DNA-based composites of litterbugs using Snapshot.

Once created, poster portraits of the perpetrators will be placed across the city, as well as on-line. Ogilvy will also promote a video on the social experiment, warning people not to litter at the risk of becoming the next face of litter.

A Snapshot composite is a descriptive profile created from any human DNA sample, even minute quantities of DNA deposited by littering.  By translating the genetic content of DNA, Snapshot predicts physical characteristics including skin pigmentation, eye and hair color, face morphology, sex, and genomic ancestry, and can identify distant familial relationships between samples.

Although Snapshot was originally developed as a forensic tool to help generate investigative leads and identify unknown remains, the Ogilvy team is using the service to generate composites of otherwise anonymous litterers as a powerful medium for raising environmental awareness.

“This campaign is one of a kind. It’s our own science experiment that we’re using to create social change.  Litter is such a major problem in Hong Kong and thanks to newly available DNA technology from Parabon, we can now put a face to this anonymous crime and get people to think twice about littering,” says Ogilvy & Mather Group Hong Kong chief creative officer Reed Collins.

Parabon director of bioinformatics Dr. Ellen McRae Greytak adds, “While Snapshot is more commonly used within the law enforcement and investigative communities to solve cold cases, this campaign proves Snapshot’s usefulness to the public in a whole new way and we’re delighted to be a part of it.”

Of course, does DNA constitute proof of littering?It is proof of previous ownership. But, it is also possible that acts of nature (the wind) could have physically blown litter from an accepted refuse place? Of course, to have it all end up at one of these known ‘dumping grounds’ is suspicious.

At this point in time, the campaign appears not to attempt to lay criminal charges, but perhaps to either humiliate or scare the populace into not littering.

Ecological education at the school levels would also be affective, but the fact that one can generate a facial image from DNA should make a significant impact into Hong Kong’s dirty little secret.

About Parabon NanoLabs, Inc.:
Parabon NanoLabs is a vertically integrated DNA technology company that develops next-generation forensic and therapeutic products, which leverage the enormous power of DNA.  Staffed by a uniquely qualified team of scientists and technologists, with expertise ranging from bioinformatics and chemistry to computer science and pharmacology, Parabon is bringing to market revolutionary new products and services made possible by recent advances in DNA sequencing, analysis and manufacturing technologies. Company information can be found at www.parabon-nanolabs.com.


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