HELIX – a different way of looking at DNA
This week sees the launch of Helix, a collaborative digital graphic novel created by artist David Blandy, scientist and writer Adam Rutherford and illustrator Daniel Locke. Helix tells the history of DNA from the perspective of a 500-year-old man kept alive by genetic therapy, with a story spanning 40,000 years – from ancient chimera, to modern-day spider goats, to speculated future human beings. Adam Rutherford tells us about his involvement with the project and his interest in these biological (and hip-hop) remixes.
In art, science and culture, we acquire new ideas by borrowing, subverting, and remixing existing ones. Amongst the first known figurative sculptures was a 40,000 year-old ornament discovered in a cave in the Swabian Alps in Germany. This 12-inch tall figure is known as Löwenmensch – lion man – a human body with a leonine head. It’s not dissimilar to Narasimha, a lion-headed avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, though predates him by thousands of years. In Greek mythology, the Chimera also had the head of a lion, but a suite of other body parts as well.
Every culture has these organismal remixes – animals and humans that have acquired other creatures’ attributes. How about the Sobek, the crocodile headed Nile god? Or centaurs, mer-people, and the heraldic Enfield, an Irish mash-up of fox, lion, eagle, greyhound and wolf. Or the very silly Bavarian Wolpertinger, a horned, winged fanged squirrel-rabbit, and surely a cousin of the Jackalope?
‘Chimera’ has a specific meaning in genetics:an organism that carries cells bearing different genetic make-ups. Unlike the Greek version, in nature chimeras are mixed from the same species, and rare, but not without controversy. A freakish legal dispute emerged in 2002 when a standard DNA paternity test suggested that the plaintiff, Lydia Fairchild, could not be the biological mother of the two children, much to her surprise. In fact, it transpired that she carried two distinct genomes, a classic (albeit rare) case of chimerism.
These biological remixes were what we became fixated on whilst discussing the shape of our Wellcome Trust-funded arts project Helix. David Blandy and I have been planning to work together on something for years. The Venn diagram of our cultural interests is heavily overlapped, including Japanese animation, science fiction, graphic novels, and hip-hop – itself a hybrid of different parts.
Much of his work has involved adopting the mantle of various avatars to explore different ideas. These have been in video games, graphic novels, bubble-pack toy figures and animations. We struck upon Helix from thinking about the complex relationship between mutation, genetics and the atomic bomb. This has been a theme of some of his work: David’s grandfather, the art historian David Piper was imprisoned by the Japanese for most of the Second World War, and so was liberated following the bombs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Crick and Watson elucidated the double helix structure of DNA 60 years ago, and their work was based on Photo 51, produced under the management of Maurice Wilkins by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling. Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson, brought the necessary X-ray crystallography skills from his work on the Manhattan Project.
The double helix was the pivotal event in 20th century biology. It was a true node in the history of science, and unusual in that regard, as there are few such advances where so much work flowed into one study, and so much rushed out the other side. Much of my input to Helix related to my book, Creation. In it, I describe the current best-fit ideas behind the origin of life on earth, and how the same knowledge of DNA has allowed us to invent the technology to remix biology. Genetic Modification began in 1973, the same year as the birth of hip-hop, and has come to dominate all forms of biological research, as sampling has become ubiquitous in music. In most cases, it is the acquisition of characteristics from other species: the glowing expression of jellyfish genes in all sorts of creatures, the production of spider silk in the udders of goats.
Hosted by the Brighton-based arts agency Lighthouse, David, illustrator Dan Locke and I found ourselves drawn to the 40,000-year obsession that we have had with swapping biological traits and acquiring non-human ones. Over hours of talk and scribbling and noodles, they began to draw up a narrative based around these ideas.
During the writing of Creation, Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow (and friend of 20 years) Kevin Fong described my book as the prequel and the sequel to evolution – a typically apposite maxim from him, and pithy enough that it is now on page 1 of the introduction. Helix is also a prequel and sequel, focussed on the same science, but bookending humankind. Narrated by one of David’s recurring avatars, it begins with the Löwenmensch, and follows his story from the origins of art, and mythology to the acquisition of real and imagined chimeric biotechnology. Current projects in synthetic biology are inventing new ways to explore not just the basic biology of humans, but planets and space. We placed him on Mars, a photosynthesising Methuselah recalling the pathway human life has taken in following our obsession with remixing biology.
Helix launches with an exhibition at GV Art, as part of London Science Festival 2013. For more information, visit the festival website.