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Dance of DNA: A new perspective on genomics

An aerial silk dancer in a performance inspired by ENCODE

An aerial silk dancer in the performance inspired by ENCODE

Attending a press conference at the Science Museum, the journalists, TV cameras and panel of academics were to be expected. But I was not expecting to witness a photoshoot involving three scientists in suits posing with three dancers in sequined leotards following an aerial “DNA dance” performed on silk sheets hung from the ceiling.

It was all inspired by research in the ENCODE project, which last night published 30 papers summarising the work to date. The project has revealed that sections of the human genome previously thought to be “junk DNA” in fact have a wide range of functions.

In particular, 4 million DNA ‘switches’ have been found that control whether genes are ‘on’ or ‘off’. The distance in the genome sequence between the switches and the genes they control is often quite large but the DNA loops back on itself, which enables the switch to work. In an attempt to engage a broader audience with such a complex topic, the silk dance performance has been choreographed to simulate this looping: hence the sequined leotards.

To me, the dance itself was impressive enough but for the very observant there was also some science embedded in the choreography. Ewan Birney, Associate Director of EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute and one of 26 principal investigators in ENCODE, informed us that “the silk represents the DNA and the dancers are proteins”. As DNA only twists clockwise and the DNA code reads up one side and down the other, the silk also only twisted clockwise around the dancers. The performance even involved a section representing ‘stuttering transcription’, a process where a protein reads a section of DNA, stops, goes back to the beginning, then reads the whole gene.

The ‘Switch to a Different You?’ display

At the same time as the scientific publications were announced, the Science Museum unveiled a new case in its ‘Who Am I?’ gallery, named ‘Switch to a Different You?’ It showcases some of the concepts in the ENCODE project, including genetic switches.

The temporary case has been developed in just two months by the gallery’s curators, working closely with ENCODE researchers. It explains how slight differences in environment can produce different characteristics, even when the DNA sequence is the same. For example, visitors can see two high resolution images of identical twins’ irises. Despite having inherited the same DNA, their eyes have slight differences because they developed in a different environment. Even in individual people, there are differences between our left eye and our right eye because of minor environmental factors changing the switches that determine how our DNA is decoded.

The exhibit will be on display until the 5 December as part of the Science Museum’s rotating showcase of the latest scientific concepts. Ewan Birney hopes that the silk dance performance and the exhibition will help engage people with the work of ENCODE.

If you’re able to go to the Science Museum today at 1.30pm, you too will be able to watch the “DNA dance” live in the ‘Who Am I?’ gallery. It is up to you to find the stuttering transcription hidden in the performance, though!

Three ENCODE researchers and three aerial silk dancers whose performance was inspired by ENCODE

Here’s the result of that photoshoot….

Image credit: Leo Johnson (Switch to a Different You? / Silk dancers and scientists)

Filed under: Biomedical Sciences, Event, Genetics and Genomics, News, Public Engagement, Science Art Tagged: aerial silk dance, ENCODE, Epigenetics, Ewan Birney, human genome, junk DNA, Science Museum

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