Creating DNA Art

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DNA stands for "deoxyribonucleic acid," the substance encoding the genetic instructions for living organisms. As DNA is the basic code of life, it is perhaps not surprising that artists have incorporated DNA into their work. One company, DNA 11, even offers prints (suitable for framing) of individualized "DNA portraits." In this post, I'll review the products offered by DNA 11 and describe methods for creating do-it-yourself DNA artworks.

If you Google "DNA Art," the first site on the list is DNA 11. They offer high quality prints of abstract representations of DNA in customized color schemes and sizes. A sample print (in the "infrared mirror" color scheme) is on the right.

Put simply, here's how it works. DNA 11 sends you a kit with instructions for swabbing the inside of your cheek for skin cells. The DNA in these cells is then cleaved at different parts using "restriction enzymes." Each person has a different sequence of DNA and will therefore have fragments of DNA of unique lengths. These fragments are placed on a gel, an electrical current is applied, and the fragments migrate to different parts of the gel. An animation of this process, called "gel electrophoresis," is here. The gel is then photographed, digitally enhanced and colorized, and printed on a high quality canvas. The result is beautiful, but expensive. (For more discussion of DNA 11, see the blog "easternblot.")

For those interested in creating their own visualizations of DNA, alternatives are available. Edward Weiss at the Center of Applied Genomics in Toronto will run a gel electrophoresis on DNA samples for minimal cost and mail back a high resolution image file. Detailed instructions and a description of the process can be found in the guide, "DNA Art on the Cheap."

A third method uses an image of DNA that is often already available: a karyotype. This is a photograph of the (usually) 23 pairs of human chromosomes displayed in a standard, numbered format. Karyotypes are performed for many reasons, but commonly, they are performed as part of an amniocentesis to identify chromosomal abnormalities such as Down Syndrome in the developing fetus. A normal karyotype is displayed on the right.

If an amniocentesis has been performed, the image of the karyotype should be available from the performing hospital's Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology or Division of Medical Genetics. Procedures for requesting records vary, so check with your institution. This may be an unusual request for them, so it goes without saying: ask nicely.

After the karyotype has been received, the next step is to scan it into a digital file (assuming it isn't already in digital format). Detailed instructions on how to manipulate and add color to the image are beyond the scope of this post, but the following are examples of a karyotype that has been colorized using Adobe Photoshop Elements. Options for adding color include changing the gradient, adjusting the color using color variation, and using a filter (in this case, glowing edges). The resulting images can then be uploaded to a site like Kodak Gallery, printed, and framed.

They make great gifts.





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About the Author


MD, FACP, FASN

Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.

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