DRAWING WITH DNA
Interactive ‘Bioart’ Installation Illuminates Genomics
By Inga Kiderra
On any given
day, tens of thousands of biologists around the globe run DNA
sequences of unknown function through a lightning-fast online
algorithm called BLAST – typically submitting 200 to 400
base pairs, or “letters” of genetic code, to be
matched against the billions of letters for known genes. Searching
for similarities that can shed light on functional or evolutionary
relationships, scientists routinely use BLAST to churn through
and produce vast amounts of data. Everyday applications include
genetic medicine and pharmaceuticals. Yet this process and,
more generally, genomics remain dimly understood by the public.
an interactive “bioart” installation to be showcased
at SIGGRAPH 2005 – in Los Angeles, July 31 through Aug.
4 – quite literally makes BLAST and genomics visible.
"Ecce Homology" custom software turns
incomprehensibly long strings of genetic code
into luminous, scientifically accurate visualizations
that resemble calligraphy. Shown here, the DNA
sequence which codes for human amylase, alpha
1A, salivary and its pictogram. Courtesy
Headed up by new-media
artist Ruth West – director of visual analytics and interactive
technologies at the University of California, San Diego National
Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research and research associate
with the UCSD Center for Research in Computing and the Arts
– the “Ecce Homology” project is an ongoing
collaboration among 11 biologists, artists and computer scientists
from UCSD, UCLA and the University of Southern California.
Named after Friedrich
Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, a meditation on how one
becomes what one is, the project explores human evolution by
examining similarities – a.k.a. “homology”
– between genes from human beings and a target organism,
in this case the rice plant.
“We are living
in a time when we are generating enormous amounts of genetic
data,” said West, who trained as a microbiologist and
began her career in medical genetics. “But data is not
knowledge – it’s not even information. A key concept
of ‘Ecce Homology’ is to make an important subject
like genomics accessible to the general public.”
uses a combination of dynamic media, computer vision and computer
graphics to visualize genomic data.
analysis of a human gene - as
visualized by "Ecce Homology."
Courtesy Ruth West
Custom software turns
genes – incomprehensibly long strings of As, Cs, Ts and
Gs – into luminous pictograms that resemble Chinese or
Sanskrit calligraphy. Based on currently available biophysical
information, the pictograms are scientifically accurate representations
of proteins encoded for by the genes.
In the SIGGRAPH installation,
the representations are rendered in a 40-foot wide and 12-foot
tall space by five video projectors, with the figures for human
genes/proteins shown along a vertical axis and for the rice
along a horizontal.
A whole-body computer
vision interface tracks the movements of visitors and allows
them to interact with the installation. By moving their bodies
slowly within the space, visitors can draw shimmering light-filled
traces. When a trace sufficiently matches a pictogram in the
human dataset, it triggers a real-time bioinformatics comparison:
BLAST begins to run, searching through the rice data for a homologue
– conducting in a novel (and visible) way the same sequence
analysis done by scientists. Results are presented as two superimposed
interact with "Ecce Homology." Watch
video of the 2003 installation
at the UCLA Fowler Museum. Courtesy
visualization reduces the complexity of sequence codes to the
sorts of shapes or patterns that a human being can make sense
of,” West said. “It is an artistic approach to extracting
what’s important. And it is also an exploration of what
art might have to offer for discovery in the sciences.”
premiered in 2003 at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
At SIGGRAPH 2005, “Ecce
Homology” is being showcased as part of the international
conference’s Art Gallery and its Emerging Technologies
program. It will also be featured in the August 2005 issue of
Leonardo, an art, science and technology journal from
The project is supported
by Intel Corp., NEC Solutions America/Visual Systems Division
and groups at UCSD, UCLA and USC.
To learn more: http://www.insilicov1.org/
For more about SIGGRAPH
Media Contact: Inga
Kiderra, (858) 822-0661