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How has DNA inspired art?

by Eva Amsen

Today is DNA Day, a day to celebrate DNA, genetics, and all the science and medical advances that come with it. In just a few decades, DNA has become so familiar and so much a part of our culture that it hasn’t just influenced science – it inspired art. There are way too many examples to list, so this is just a small selection of ways in which DNA inspired art.


DNA in visual arts

Salvador Dali was one of the first artists to be inspired by the structure of DNA, which was discovered in 1953. The image to the right is one of his works, in the Dali museum in Barcelona.

A cycle path just outside Cambridge has a sculpture on either end in the shape of the DNA helix, and the code of the BRCA2 breast cancer gene painted on the path.

The DNA helix was also the canvas for a series of sculptures spread throughout London in the summer of 2015. Each sculpture was decorated by a different artist, and I organised a walking tour past most of them!

One challenge with DNA helix-inspired art is to get the helix to turn in the right direction. DNA always twists the same way, and if you get it wrong, you’ll upset some biologists! I learned this the hard way when I did it wrong myself on a cake I baked. I corrected it a few years later!

Besides the chemical structure and the helix shape, another visual aspect of DNA is the pattern it creates in gel electrophoresis. This is the traditional way of finding out the sequence or other properties of DNA.  This type of pattern is what inspired artologica in making this scarf.


DNA in performing arts and music

Recently, the structure of DNA made it to the West End, where Nicole Kidman portrayed Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51.  That was a major performance, but I’ve seen small shows inspired by DNA as well. About a decade ago I attended a play in Canada about chimeras and stem cell research, which also addressed genetics and heredity. I reviewed it for The Scientist at the time.

And of course, there’s music inspired by DNA.Very often, this is based on the parallels between musical patterns and the genetic code. In DNA, the 4 bases A, C, G, and T can form the code for all of the amino acids. This has inspired musicians to come up with ways to convert the code into music. Last year, I heard a different kind of DNA-inspired music at the Festival of Genomics. Rather than converting genetic code to music, the Kreutzer Quartet was inspired by the shape and properties of DNA.


Why is there so much DNA inspired art?

These were just a few examples of DNA art. It really is everywhere! The simple systematic code inspires mathematical interpretations and repeated patterns. The cycle path or the DNA scarf are examples of that. But despite its simple coding system, DNA ultimate leads to very complex biological processes. Even character traits like “being a morning person” have links to our genes. DNA is not just code and math: it determines who we are! That relation between the simple and mathematical on one hand and the murky complexities of “being human” on the other is what makes DNA such a popular inspiration for art.




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Talha Anwar April 25, 2017 - 9:43 PM

Ahan, being a bio medical engineering student, i have read about DNA many time, but for the first time i read the relation on DNA with Music. Surprizing

Eva April 25, 2017 - 9:45 PM

There’s even a Wikipedia page for “protein music”. It’s its own genre now! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_music

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