Is life a form of art? Thomas Baekdal thought it was and created his online Web2DNA project. The concept is simple: take a gene array, blow it up to the size of a painting, print it on canvas and put it on your wall. Genial in its simplicity. It is the proof that something good can come out of watching television, because he thought of his project one night watching television, and being bored to hell with what he saw. And thus, art came to life, or rather in this case, life came to art. The result is a genetic variation of Rothko’s mystic window into our selves.
Gene arrays come in many forms and are based on gene matching proteins, whose chemical structure perfectly match to the mirror structure of the gene during expression. Researchers thought of a way to attach a marker to the protein. The marker is a chemical that lights up under fluorescent light, so that when you create a matrix of DNA segments or probes, and genes to look for, certain probes will have active or expressed genes and others will not. This will show by fluorescent colors lighting up, most widely used techniques involve the colors green and red. The result is a mesmorizing array of black, green and red spots, differing in brightness dependent on the level of activity of the particular gene in the particular probe.
Baekdal’s project is nothing but a simple idea blown up to a life size picture, but it displays wonderfully the esthetic qualities of life and modern technology that can be found in life sciences. The quality of life science to blow your mind away, is also brought forward in another, more professional, prestigious and ground-breaking project. What both projects have in mind, is perhaps that they use the building blocks of life and they charge a fee for their product.
The Genographic Project is a collaboration lead by National Geographic scientist Spencer Wells between the National Geographic Foundation, IBM Life Sciences and the Waitt Family Foundation. Although, it’s intention is not to create works of art, the border between art, science and the public are being pushed so far and taken down among each other to an extent that it is also hard to exclude it from the realm of art. The objective of the Genographic Project is to collect the unique genetic codes of the indiginous people in the world and try and reconstruct from it the migration of human kind. It also allows the public to participate by sending in a saliva swap for $100. In return people will receive a geopgraphic trail of their DNA, showing where from their ancestral genes originated. This can be done by using the maternal mitochondral DNA (mtDNA) and the paternal Y-chromosome and matching it to the ethnic gene codes in the database.
The Genographic Project exploits the sentiment of people who think they have an origin, a pure root from which they have descended like a tree grows from its roots. This desire to belong of the individual was also fascinatingly exploited in the BBC coy Motherland – A Genetic Journey or also called Roots for Real. That the journey to one’s roots can be more artifical than art, was brilliantly shown in this BBC series. The fact that the Genographic Project has already sold 175 thousand kits (totalling $17.5 million) also offers us a glimp in the future, where we are bound to be exposed to a popularly available version of genetic knowledge. A mass psychotic fascination for our genes or our roots as they used to be called opens many doors of opportunity but also will open a Pandora’s box.