Fifty years after its discovery, the double helix is twisting itself ever deeper into popular culture
“WE WISH to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).” So began the modest introduction to what turned out to be one of the most momentous papers in the history of biology. It was published exactly 50 years ago, on April 25th 1953, in Nature. Now, even, advertisements for IBM boast that the company can help its customers get “into the DNA of business...to turn old processes into new profits”.
Within two generations DNA has moved from academic obscuritywhere even scientists needed to see it spelled outto everyday language, an instantly recognised symbol with little connection to its scientific origins. Much of that cultural shift is courtesy of James Watson and Francis Crick, the authors of the paper in question. The structure they wished to suggest gave birth to an icon: the double helix.
Building on the work of many others, they described how the two spiral chains which make up DNA are coiled around a single axis, and how the two strands unite through the precise pairing of four different types of nucleotide basesadenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Their paper also included a simple pen-and-ink drawing of the molecule, by Odile Crick, Francis's wife. The two researchers had little doubt about their prediction; as Dr Watson later remarked, “A structure this pretty just had to exist.”
As a scientific model, the double helix opened the way to answering many lingering questions in genetics: how hereditary information is stored, how it is copied and passed on from one generation to another, how genetic damage is repaired and how information flows from the level of the gene to the marvellous structures of nature. But the double helix has invaded the wider world, too, and has become a symbol of the hopes and fears that people have about where biological knowledge might lead. When a movie about a genetically engineered future was dubbed “GATTACA” by its creator, he did not need to spell out the fact that the four letters used in the title are the abbreviations for the nucleotide basesin other words, the letters of the genetic code.
In scientific terms, the model of the double helix, combined with the notion that DNA is a code, has transformed biology. But it has also given people a powerful visual and verbal means to communicate their concerns about the fruits of this new sciencegene prospecting, DNA patenting, genetic testing, designer babies, cloningand their social consequences. As Susan Lindee, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, points out, today the gene is no longer a simple biological unit, but a “supergene” which has been invested with personality, good or bad, and the power to determine identity, reveal ancient origins, shape family relations and even predict future health.
Of course, genetic determinism is nothing new. The code and the double helix have become such powerful cultural symbols in part because they offer a new twist on old ideas about the power of heredity and destiny in the blood. They also fit neatly into existing cultural notions of science, picking up where Prometheus and Frankenstein left off, turning genetics into prime material for novels, films and videogames. Today, according to Soraya de Chadarevian, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, DNA has taken on almost sacred status as the central blueprint for life, and the double helix has become the instantly identifiable secular equivalent of a modern religious icon.
This new iconography is increasingly reflected in the visual arts. This year has seen half a dozen exhibitions in New York and London, displaying paintings, photography, sculpture and digital works that all take their cue from molecular biology.
Art has long borrowed images and inspiration from science and technology. And as Dr Chadarevian points out, the double helix is not the first strong image created by 20th-century science. Physics has also produced a number of potent signs, such as the atomic mushroom cloud and the Bohr atom, with its busy electrons orbiting a nucleus. Indeed, the splitting of the atom strongly influenced abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, says Suzanne Anker, an artist based in New York and co-author of a new book on biology in the arts*. The early years of aviation and motoring also sent the artistic imaginations of Italian and Russian futurists soaring. But the principles of heredity and evolution had to wait until the double helix, and subsequent representations of DNA, to find a visual language.
Nor was the double helix an immediate cultural hit. The first artist to use it was Salvador Dali, who included DNA spirals in his surreal, phantasmagoric paintings of the 1950s. But he was ahead of his time. It took the publication of Dr Watson's book, “The Double Helix”, in 1968, and the advent of biotechnology and the manipulation of genetic material in the 1970s, to edge DNA towards the centre of the public gaze. Since then, howeverand particularly since the 1980smany artists have followed in Dali's wake. The marvellous symmetry and sheer beauty of the double helix has been a boon to sculpture, sending double helices soaring to the sky and snaking to the ground, as the piece by Charles Jencks at the beginning of this article demonstrates.
Other artists have turned to related genetic structures and images. Ms Anker, for example, recreates chromosomes in sculpture and on canvas, in order, she says, to look at relationships between the body in flesh, its genetic code and primitive alphabets. Kevin Clarke, an American artist, creates “conceptual” genetic portraits by writing out sections of his subject's genetic sequence as a string of As, Cs, Gs and Ts superimposed on an appropriate imagesuch as, in the case of James Watson, a series of bookshelves.
Some artists use DNA itself as their palette. In the National Portrait Gallery in London there hangs a “picture” of one of Britain's best-known scientists, Sir John Sulston, who was a key figure in the Human Genome Project. But look into this work, by Marc Quinn, and the thing you will see is not Sir John, but your own face in reflection, speckled with white glassy beads. These are bacterial colonies, which have been genetically modified with bits of Sir John's own DNA.
Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist, also uses genetic engineering of bacteria and animals to explore relations between science and art, man and nature. His most famous work, “GFP Bunny”, is a rabbit genetically modified to glow green when it is exposed to ultraviolet light. In “Genesis”, Mr Kac translated a sentence from the Bible into Morse Code, then into DNA, which he incorporated in bacteria. Viewers were encouraged to turn on an ultraviolet light in the gallery, thus inducing further genetic mutations in the bacteria, and changing the meaning of the Word. Joe Davis, an artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has even grander plans for his genetically modified rabbits. He wants to engineer them to express part of the Milky Way, translated into genetic code.
But as Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford University, points out, much of the “genetic” art produced today is more a criticism than a celebration of modern biology. There is a ready forum in the arts for the debates that rage in the press over about what is and is not permissible. These, in turn, reflect popular anxieties about social control, conformity and commoditisation. In “Cultured”, for example, Bryan Crockett, an American artist, comments on the business of biotechnology with larger-than-life marble mice representing the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is a model of an animal modified to become obese, so that it can be used in the laboratory to study diabetes.
Architecture, too, is feeling the effects of genetics. Spiral staircases aside, few architects directly invoke the double helix or DNA outside a scientific setting, according to Neil Spiller, a specialist in architecture and digital theory at University College, London. That said, a number of architects are turning to the genetic underpinnings of evolution in their design methods.
Among them is Greg Lynn, an architect based in Los Angeles who is also a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. His “Embryological House” is a computer-based experiment intended to create architecture out of curved surfaces rather than sets of co-ordinatesblobs rather than blocks. Mr Lynn's design program allows him to specify the “seed” of a house, based on, say, its physical setting or his client's initial specifications. The computer generates changes, or “mutations”, that break the symmetry of this starting design into strange, almost organic forms. Whether the Embryological House will mature from a gleam in Mr Lynn's eye to a home on the range remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, he has used the same approach to create “evolved” tea and coffee pots for Alessi, an Italian household-goods manufacturer.
Fashion is proving rather more resistant to genetic inspiration. While the double helix has popped up in everything from T-shirts to perfume, it is used more as a visual gimmick than a design principle. One exception is the work of Helen Storey, a London artist who collaborated with her sister, Kate Storey, an embryologist at the University of Dundee, in Scotland, to create “Primitive Streak”. This is a dress collection that represents the first 1,000 hours of human life. Almost half of the collection, now on display at King's College, London, reflects the different ways in which genes influence early embryonic development, using the weave of cloth and the cut of fabric to build the double helix into the design.
While artists are increasingly influenced by genetics, few biologists, so far, have admitted to finding inspiration in artistic representations of their world. “Most think we're messing around with dresses, which has nothing to do with the seriousness of science,” says Helen Storey. One exception is John McLachlan, a biologist at Peninsula Medical School near Plymouth, England, who first contacted Helen Storey to use pictures of Primitive Streak to teach his students about embryology. Their subsequent collaboration on other artistic projects has led Dr McLachlan to revamp his notions of how sex determination occurs in humans. He outlines his ideas in a paper in the May issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology, co-written by Helen Storey. While art and genetics may not pair with perfect complementarity, it is surely a sign of stronger bonds forming when artists participate in peer-reviewed science.
As the double helix weaves its way into the visual arts, DNA is also finding a voice in music. A few biologists, composers and computer scientists are working with DNA, not just as inspiration but as raw material for “the sound of the 21st century”, according to Sophie Dauvois, a multimedia designer based in London.
Ms Dauvois is part of Sonic Gene, an ambitious project started in 2001 to celebrate the completion of the Human Genome Project by translating the entire DNA sequence into music. The challenge lies in finding a meaningful way of converting a string of nucleotide bases into pitches, rhythms and so on. To do this, Ms Dauvois is working with Joseph Insana, a computer specialist at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England. Dr Insana has created a computer program to turn nucleotides into musical pitches, allowing him to use the exquisite acuity of human hearing to detect different sounds, and hence different nucleotides in various DNA sequences played back as sound.
While four pitches (one for each nucleotide) may be enough for DNA analysis, they make for boring music. So the pair have linked up with Tim Gane, a member of the English pop band Stereolab, to help turn the data into something musicians can work with. One way they are trying to spice up the sound is to use the process by which DNA is transcribed into protein as a way of adding rhythm to the music. Once the collaborators have worked out how to convert all this genetic information into a musically useful digital form, called MIDI files, they plan to make it available over the internet, so that musicians around the world can create their own versions of the human genome, from classical to reggae. So far, the team has converted 20 genes into MIDI, though that is a mere bar in the symphony of perhaps 30,000 genes that make up the human genome.
While Sonic Gene pushes ahead, other composers are already making music. Todd Barton, of Ashland, Oregon, is trying to set the gene involved in Huntington's chorea to music, assigning pitches to its DNA sequence to create a score for a dance conceived by a woman whose husband died of the disease.
Others allow more of the chemistry of DNA into their music. Susan Alexjander, a composer in Santa Cruz, California, uses the physical characteristics of the four different nucleotides as her musical palette. When DNA bases are exposed to infra-red light, their chemical bonds absorb different frequencies of the light. These can be measured, providing roughly 15 different readings per molecule. Ms Alexjander takes these 60-odd absorption readings and converts them into sonic frequencies using straightforward mathematics. She then uses these pitches on her synthesiser as banks of sound, assigning them different voices and instruments.
Mary Anne Clark, a professor of biology at Texas Wesleyan University, uses a similar method to enhance her understanding of her subject. She creates molecular music, better to appreciate patterns in the proteins that are encoded by particular genes. Along with John Dunn, a software designer, she has devised an algorithm which assigns pitches to the 20 different amino acids that are the molecular building blocks of proteins. Pitches are assigned according to how well particular amino acids mix with water.
In nature, the chains of amino acids that proteins are composed of fold up in ways that push water-loving amino acids to the outer surface and water-loathing ones to the inside. In her computer program, Dr Clark assigns these structures to different instruments, chooses a key, and lets the sequence run. The result is music with audible themes that highlight particular features of a protein.
Dr Clark uses her musical molecules to help students understand the complexities of protein structure, and appreciate the beauties of biology. But teaching aside, the mainstream musical appeal of DNA remains doubtful. Molecular melodies still lie somewhere in the uneasy borderland between the arts and science.
Commerce, however, is another matter. Wherever DNA goes, these days, money never seems to be far behind. For example, Algorithmic Arts, a company started by Mr Dunn, allows customers to download molecular music over the internet. One of its products is the sound of alcohol dehydrogenase, a liver protein involved in mopping up the after-effects of a night on the town. Another, more sinister tune is based on the genes of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
Although Ms Alexjander hates to hear molecular music described as “New Age”, its weird pitches and strange rhythms do sound like a natural complement to crystals and incense. So, not surprisingly, some have tried to cash in on the healing powers of DNA music, selling aural doses of Ginkgo biloba and Echinacea genes, to help listeners “strengthen mind-body connections”, according to one internet purveyor.
Others contemplate a more hard-nosed approach. Pim Stemmer, head of research at Avidia, a Californian biotechnology company, wonders if translating DNA sequences into music might be one way to get around the problems of gene patenting, as patent offices in both America and Europe use ever-tighter criteria for what constitutes a novel, inventive, useful, and therefore patentable, claim for a gene.
Dr Stemmer speculates that, if companies were to turn their DNA sequences into music, they might be able to copyright them instead. For a fee, such music files could then be swapped over the internet, with users translating their downloads back into DNA sequences. Failure to pay the piper, as it were, would constitute copyright infringement, and so companies could still profit in some way from their genomic handiwork while allowing others to share it. Dr Stemmer has yet to test his idea and, as Napster has shown, enforcing musical copyright can be a tricky business. But if it were to work, then the double helix will have recombined once more to create a new form, in which the triple strands of DNA, art and commerce are ever more tightly intertwined.
Back to Kac Web