Fernando Yzquierdo and Desiree Pico

What happens when your DNA becomes as accessible as a candy bar in a vending machine?  That’s what Ms. Natalia Cardona hopes to accomplish; to raise awareness to the lack of laws pertaining to DNA ownership.  Inspired by New York artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, Ms. Cardona has received permission to conduct a project–the TERRA DNA Project.

Barcia-Colombo enrolled himself in a course on DNA extraction.  There, he and a group of others were trained in the art of DNA extraction.  Afterwards, Colombo gathered a group of his friends every Friday night to extract DNA from a saliva sample.  One night, he was sitting down doodling; a vial of his friends DNA at his side, a sketch of a vending machine on his note pad; inspiration strikes, and the DNA vending machine is born.

One commonly conducted experiment–even by students–is the strawberry DNA extraction.  In fact, the process is quite similar to how regular human DNA would be extracted; first, one would crush the strawberries into a puree-type mixture, and mix it with a salt-soap solution to break down the membranes of the cells.  Meanwhile, ethanol is being cooled in the fridge to later be added to the strawberry-salt-and-soap-solution.  The strawberry pulp is then strained out, leaving the strawberry juice and salt/soap solution.  The alcohol is then added to further break down the membranes of the cells and to separate the DNA from the rest of the mixture.

Two years pass after Colombo presents his idea on a TEDTalk before Ms. Natalia Cardona, the sophomore Biomedical and AP Capstone Seminar teacher, catches wind of the video.  What is the project, for starters? “The TERRA sophomore Biomedical academy is in the works at replicating Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s DNA vending machine art installations.  It’s meant to raise awareness to the controversy on DNA ownership, and the privacy or accessibility of DNA,” says Ms. Cardona.

Her plan is to place these DNA Vending Machines in public locations in order to raise as much awareness as possible when it comes to this topic.  The cafeteria, along with the main lobby and a few other locations, has been labeled as “key locations” for these vending machines.

Unfortunately, with every good idea, there are a handful of people who are apposed to it.  Concerned parents are worried that their child’s privacy and information will be too accessible, and that they are worried that someone may be able to get very personal information.  Luckily, the teams working on the DNA vending machines have faced the problem head on; the DNA contained within the vending machines will not be accessible once it is sealed within the vending machines themselves, and that the fact that it is a vending machine is only a symbol for accessibility–students, faculty, staff, or anyone that may see these vending machines will not be able to “buy” DNA.

We see how the adults view it, but the majority of the TERRA populous is comprised of students, all of which are divided into three primary academies; we know them as Biomedical, Environmental, and Engineering.  Gabriela Jorge, a Biomedical student currently working on the project reports how the entire team working on the TERRA DNA Project is in desperate need for funding.

What has been the primary focus on the project at the moment?  “We’re looking for sponsors that would be willing to provide us with vending machines and T-shirts,” she says.  “We also…want [an expert in the field of genetics] to speak in a conference when we’re done with the projects, so that everyone can see how [different this is].”

The classes working on the TERRA DNA Project aim to have the vending machines by mid-late November so that they may have enough time to set them up in their given locations by winter break.  Many students are working on finding sponsors, managing the budget for the project, and developing an aesthetic façade for the vending machines.

However “morbid” the idea may sound, it does bring up a few questions.  Who does your DNA belong to?  If someone buys it, does it belong to them?  What can a buyer do with that DNA?  Depending on who the DNA is from, how much monetary worth would it be held at? “It would be fun to see people’s natural reaction,” says Cardona.  “I’d imagine they’d feel uncomfortable.  We see DNA as something private, and putting a value on it would definitely receive mixed responses.”