There’s a cycle path in Cambridge that has the code for the breast cancer gene BRCA2 painted on it, with each nucleotide a colour. If this sounds familiar, you might have read about the BRCA2 cycle path, and the geeky attempts to decode it, on Jenny’s blog last year. (I just re-read it and was again really proud of my math abilities while soaked in rain.)
Today I finally went to check out the cycle path.
Now, when I said “in Cambridge”, I actually mean “in the middle of a field just outside Cambridge”, but I’ve noticed that that is pretty much true for everything in Cambridge. I mean in the middle of fields. This weekend, for example, is also the annual outdoor film screening in Cambridge. It is also in the middle of a field outside Cambridge. I was all excited about it (films! outside!) until I figured out that part. So instead of going to that field, I went to another field to look for the cycle path.
I knew the BRCA2 cycle path ran between Addenbrooke’s hospital and Great Shelford, and found a cycle path on the map that corresponded with that route. It took me a while to find out how to get from the hospital grounds to the cycle path, so I went inside the hospital to buy a drink and take a break before I even started. (I worked in a hospital for almost all of my PhD, so now find hospitals a totally normal place to buy some refreshments on the weekend. Why? Where do other people buy their lemonade?)
With help of my iPhone I found the cycle path, but… it looked normal.
[Not pictured: normal looking cycle path. I guess you can kind of imagine it. Just some asphalt in a field.]
The BRCA gene art doesn’t actually start at the hospital, where people could visit it and admire it, but a few minutes of cycling further down the path and, yes, in the middle of a field:
It was about ten minutes or less to pedal to the furthest end of the path, and from this point on the gene sequence was there the whole way. Here are seven seconds of the cycling journey along the BRCA2 path. (Cycling in the middle of the path for artistic reasons for the video. I otherwise kept left like a proper safe cyclist.)
At the other end was the town of Great Shelford. Here, the end/start of the path was actually close to houses, so it’s something you can visit on foot if you’re in Shelford, but the Cambridge end of things really requires a bike. (Maybe it didn’t start at the hospital because the gene was too short… but why didn’t they make the stripes bigger?!)
Both ends had an information sign as well.
The path was opened in 2007, and includes the 10,000th mile of cycle path in the UK. The nearby Sanger institute (famous for its genome sequencing) suggested to decorate the path with a gene, and BRCA2 was chosen because it has approximately 10,000 base pairs, but also because it’s a gene that people can relate to. Genetic screens for breast cancer risk are something that people will have heard of, and this is the gene that those tests look at.
Now what we still haven’t figured out is: is the gene on the BRCA2 cycle path the healthy version, or a concerning mutation? If I’m ever really, really, bored, I might decode the whole path and find out.