Celebrity Gene (celebritygene.com) is the headline grabbing brand that was created in a laboratory by DNA researcher Ryan Lehto. Ryan’s unique way of binding allows the DNA from any person (dead or alive) to be incorporated into products while keeping its integrity and information intact.
With this concept in mind, Ryan has turned Celebrity Gene into a global craze, as the possibilities are endless; imagine a guitar pick infused with Jimmy Hendrix’s DNA or shoes with Michael Jordan’s DNA in the soles. Celebrity Gene is also currently selling DNA pendant necklaces of America’s most notorious Gangster Al Capone, along with past celebs such as Justin Bieber, Princess Diana and Elvis!
But while creating unique products that people will remember and keep forever, Ryan also has a big heart. For each piece of Celebrity Gene jewelry that is sold, Ryan’s company gives a portion of proceeds back to the celeb’s charity of choice.
The Levity Ball just had to sit down with the DNA mastermind Ryan Lehto to learn more…
When did you first “know” that you wanted to work with science as a job?
As a young child I was always fascinated by nature and bothered my parents with endless questions. How does a bird fly or why do ants live underground. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a biologist. When I started university all my studies were around traditional biology and started to lean to marine biology. I did a project one year with Dr. Carney Matheson who is an archaeologist but works mainly with ancient mummies and prehistoric animals/plants to retrieve DNA. The field of ancient DNA was just beginning and I was hooked immediately. So my graduate work was all in retrieving and repairing DNA from ancient samples. My personal best was extracting and repairing DNA from a 7500 year old skull. It is like extreme forensics.
How did you even come up with this Celebrity Gene concept?
I was working at a university DNA Lab one day doing my regular day. This day I was extracting DNA from 400 year old mummy hair and was in the clean lab in my contamination suit. While the samples were digesting I had an hour to kill and didn’t want to leave as I would have to undergo all decontamination procedures and remove my suit. So I was just surfing the internet killing time I came across an article where Elvis Presley hair was up for auction. In the comment section people said someone should buy it and get the DNA from it. There were several commenters saying it was impossible. Well I was doing exactly that so I looked around and tracked down some authenticated Elvis hair and brought it to the lab. I was successful in recovering the DNA from it. I just wanted to say I had The King in my fridge. I collected a few more and did the same. I thought with my method of binding DNA to a substrate well i could incorporate this into products. It is like having that person in whatever I made.
Do you think the government has found a way to fully clone humans but haven’t told us yet?
Cloning humans is technologically viable at this point. Although it has some major ethical problems and the process isn’t perfected as many genetic defects often appear in cloned creatures.
In simple terms, how do you get the DNA from some of the celebrities you have worked with / sell?
In most cases we look for some item that would contain their DNA. Hair is really good because it has a verifiable chain of custody and is easy to work with. We could get DNA from clothing such as a hat or gloves or even as one person we are in talks with has Bob Dylan’s harmonica.
What has been the hardest thing you’ve gone through since starting Celebrity Gene?
The hardest part for me is that due to a bad car accident that left me partially paralyzed for a time and the years of physical rehab this has been a project I really enjoyed as its fun but had to give up on for long time. Getting this out to the main stream has been a challenge as there is a generational gap. Older generations don’t really understand it and tend to go negative while younger generation embraces it.
You are all about charity it seems, even donating a portion of each purchase from Al Capone’s DNA jewelry to the Feeding America organization… Why is charity such a big deal to you and your company?
Well having a near death experience really clarifies things for you. You don’t value stuff as much anymore and start valuing people and relationships more. I figured this would be a good way to use that star power celebrities possess to do something productive and help people. With the Al Capone I figured this is a chance for him to do some good even if it is from beyond the grave.
What does the future hold for Celebrity Gene and your products you offer?
Well beyond the pendants we are considering incorporating the DNA into products. It will be the ultimate in branding and will not be able to be faked. We use the Jimmy Hendrix guitar pick with his DNA infused into it as an example or basketball shoes with the greatest basketball stars DNA in the soles. We are also looking at stuff to retrieve some DNA of the past greats like Mozart and Beethoven.
What is your advice to others looking at getting into science or the fashion world?
I guess I never tried to get into either as everyone says find something you love to do and things will fall into place afterwards. Not to say there’s not a lot of hard work but the opportunity will present itself if you are passionate about your field.
Who were some of your role models growing up in the science world?
The great discoverers like Mendel the father of genetics along with Wallace who I think Darwin stole his credit. Also Watson and Crick for the DNA structure discovery that now is revolutionizing the world from family history to medicine.
Which one celebrity do you hope to work with one day… that is currently still alive?!
I would love to get some of the traditional geek ones like William Shatner, as well as some of the great musicians still rocking like the Rolling Stones.