Of the 100 images reviewed, most were strikingly clean and sharp, likely increasing their appeal for use as illustrations but also perhaps raising expectations for the cleanliness and clarity of genetic testing. A summary of the identified images can be found in Table 1.
Laboratory work on genetic testing
“Wet lab” aspects of genetic testing were prominent in the image databases, with many images illustrating different phases of sample processing. The images showed various scientific equipment highlighting technical aspects of genetic testing. For example, 19% of the images included a microscope, perhaps evoking the idea of close inspection and detailed examination, even though microscopes do not play an important role in most genetic testing. This reflected Van Dijck’s observation Image Nation regarding the “ostentatious presence of…visualizing instruments” in images of geneticists in the 1990s (9).
The samples tested were presented with varying relevance to practice, ranging from barcoded Vacutainer blood collection tubes and Eppendorf tubes containing small volumes of colorless liquid at one end of the spectrum, to large Erlenmeyer flasks and round bottom flasks colored in bright blue and orange were filled with liquids on the other side. Pipettes and droppers were seen in 39% of the images, as shown in Fig. 1A, and were often noticeable, for example, in 18% of the images analyzed (46% of the images showed a pipette), the focal point was a droplet of liquid at the end of a pipette or dropper, potentially evoking ideas of precision, accuracy and immediacy as the drop is ready to fall.
Analysis of genetic data
24% of the archival images contained some type of slab gel electrophoresis image, supporting O’Riordan’s 2010 observation that DNA “ribbons” or “ladders” represent a “genomic symbol” (12). There was a clear discrepancy between image databases here, with images containing gels making up 42% of Getty images but only 6% of Adobe Stock images (although another 6% of Adobe Stock images contained “ribbon-like” motifs such as “may”) visible on a gel). In both image databases, 60% of the images with gels showed multiple different colored bands, and in 46% of the images with gels, the bands glowed clearly, as shown in Fig. 1B. This depiction of brightly colored objects against a dark background recalled parallels that popular texts sometimes draw between genetics and space exploration (9).
Most of the gel images looked like they were originally based on a restriction fragment length polymorphism test or something similar. The decision to rely on this older technology to create archival images, showing precise (often luminous) barcode-like stripes, arguably tended to portray genetic testing as clear, unambiguous and informative. None of the images representing data for analysis referenced widely used newer technologies. For example, there were no images with nucleotides as letters ACGT and no images showing, for example, read alignment viewers or data from VCF files. This probably partly reflects our decision to search the image databases for “genetic test” rather than “genomic test” (since genetic is a broader term (18)). However, an informal search of both image databases for the term “genomic test” shows that gel-based images still predominate compared to, for example, ACGT-based representations of data.
Absent patients and shady scientists
Only 7% of the images showed people who had had genetic testing themselves. If there was enough of the person in the photo to make a judgment, they all appeared to be young adults. Many images showed very little of the person or showed them in a passive and vulnerable position. For example, three images showed a woman having a cheek swab (shown in Fig. 1C). Only one image alluded to the transmission of the results of a genetic test: the image showed a woman and a man in casual clothing sitting together holding hands, while to their left the arms of a third person in a white coat could be seen, who wrote on a clipboard rested a stethoscope. The couple’s faces were not included in the image, reflecting the tendency, evident in archival images as a whole, to crop out the people undergoing genetic testing from the images depicting genetic testing.
In contrast, 59% of the images depicted people involved in carrying out genetic testing. They typically wore clothing that emphasized a scientific/technical role, such as white coats, blue gloves, goggles, or goggles. However, in most of the images, the focus was not on the person themselves – for example, 41% of images showing people working with genetic testing only showed hands or fingertips, and 42% of images where When people were pictured, faces were visible. When working with genetic testing, there were no cases where a person looked directly into the camera. While people were portrayed as being involved in the processing of genetic tests, the focus usually seemed to be on the equipment or samples they were holding or handling. The role that people might play in delivering outcomes or what they might mean in the context of an individual’s life has rarely been acknowledged.
The double helix
The double helix was visible in 23% of the archive images analyzed. Here, too, there was an imbalance between the different image databases: 42% of Adobe Stock images contained the double helix, compared to only 4% of Getty images. When an image contained a double helix, it was usually highlighted or the focal point of the image: in 30% of images containing a double helix, this was highlighted by glowing or sparkling light that appeared to emanate from the helix, as shown in Fig. 1D. The use of the double helix to illustrate genetic testing archival images echoes associations surrounding the discovery of its structure, which was heralded as “the secret of life” (19, 20). Its use in images illustrating genetic testing may serve to emphasize that such tests are directly examining something fundamental, and may create the expectation that insights will emerge directly from the analysis, just as the light emanates from the helix in these images. As Nelkin and Lindee discuss in “The DNA Mystique,” such representations can serve to “glorify DNA and promote the idea of genetic essentialism” (10).