Thursday, November 20, 2003

Biology Meets Art and Computer Graphics: Ecce Homology

Dear Kari,

A couple of weeks back, a computer friend of mine invited me to the opening night of an art exhibit at the UCLA Fowler Museum entitled, Ecce Homology. This multi-disciplinary project attempts to "visualize" artistically the most well known bioinformatics program called a BLAST search. BLAST stands for: Basic Local Alignment Search Tool.

BLAST is a computer program that resides at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health.

When a researcher in Indiana identifies a DNA sequence of a gene she is interested in or a scientist in India has some fragmentary protein sequence, he and she will use the internet and enter that data and initiate a BLAST search to see if the sequence they have is similar to something cataloged in the database.

The Ecce Homology exhibit gives an artistic visualization of this process that happens over 100,000 times a day. The viewer of the exhibit stands in front of the wall where she is detected by a camera. Her motions are feed into a computer and a "BLAST" search is initiated as represented by light pulses that stream from the Y-axis of the display which has visual representations of genes in humans. These pulses of light move along the X-axis which has visual representations of rice genes. When a match is found, the pulses merge and brighten.

The audience asked about some of the artistic choices made by the project team. For instance, why did they opt for black and white and no color? They explained that the BLAST process is a high speed complex computer search and so they opted for a visualization that emphasized simplicity and had the representations move slowly.

Another audience member asked about the high degree of knowledge that the viewer must have to understand what is happening in the installation and that in some sense this exhibit is unlike other art works. The project team agreed but they pointed out the aesthetic appeal that can be tapped even without any knowledge or only partial knowledge of the whole concept behind Ecce Homology. Some audience members chimed in saying as non-scientists their reaction is that the images are simply beautiful to look at.

What do you think Kari? If such an exhibit were to arrive in a Kansas City museum near you, would you go run out and take a look?

I feel that so much of what happens in science is so mysterious to the general public that two things happen: people become afraid of science and become hostile or they have blind trust in scientists. Because of this concern, I welcome any attempts to bridge the world of the scientist with the general public. I applaud what Brian Greene did in the recent PBS Nova shows on superstring theory. And in the case of Ecce Homology, I tip my hat to Ruth West and her team in putting this together.

Yours truly,

Cheryl Kerfeld (crystallographer), Ruth West (artist) and Weihong Yan (bioinformatics)

The whole project team behind Ecce Homology. To read about them click here.

The computers behind the graphics of the visualization.

One of the visualizations of a rice protein.

At the end of the evening, the audience was invited to interact with the exhibit.

After the panel presentations, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Kerfeld for a few moments. I asked her about how they turn the abstract data about proteins into images. Think of proteins as a string of beads with the individual beads being amino acid molecules. There are 20 different amino acids that comprise proteins in all living things. She explained that certain amino acids were assigned certain thicknesses in the calligraphic representations, amino acids of positive electrical charge had certain shapes and brightness as did amino acids of negative charge. And finally, there are computer programs that predict bends in proteins and so those are taken into account yielding the curvy shapes of the images.

Thanks go out to my buddy Harold for telling me about the exhibit and for usage of these photos. To see more photos from the opening night click here.


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