|The Boys from Brazil|
Helen Polson clasped her hands together, excited, as she took in an
exhibit at an art show focused on genetics in New York last week. One
in a series of fashion designs based on human embryonic development, it
shows a woman, spinal column exposed, draped in a helical red dress of
DNA sequencing gel.
"I'm not a scientist," said Ms.
Polson, 27, a student at New York University. "But this helps you see,
it's not just about the scientific code, it's a new way of looking at
the body, it's part of what makes us people." Pausing, she added,
"Also, I love fashion."
Since the discovery of the
double helix 50 years ago unlocked the molecular secret of life, the
popular imagination has been busily sequencing its own meaning from the
ultimate scientific symbol. As scientists rush to decipher the way
genes express their biological functions, the public's hopes and fears
about the power of DNA have found expression in forms both prosaic and
Replicating itself with the efficiency
for which it is famous, the double helix has produced a great variety
of artistic phenotypes, from the 1978 movie "The Boys From Brazil,"
about cloning Hitler, to "Clone High," a new MTV animation featuring
teenage clones of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Joan of Arc in modern-day
high school. (As nurture would have it, Ms. Arc is an atheist).
bracelets twisted in the shape of a double helix sell for $10 at gift
shops across the country; DNA perfume "recommended for casual use," is
available at fine department stores, actual nucleic acids not included.
Players of the popular video game "Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix"
battle bioterrorists; its creators said they were looking for something
"more fresh" after the original, which involved retrieving stolen
nuclear warheads. The double helix adorned a postage stamp in England.
In New York alone, five exhibits devoted to genetics in contemporary
art open this month.
With its extraordinary
symmetry and blend of form and function, the double helix has
supplanted the bomb-tainted atom as the standard symbol of science. Its
celebrity status and multiple associations, the art historian Martin
Kemp wrote in a recent issue of the journal Nature, make DNA the "Mona
Lisa" of modern biology.
But the double helix also
resonates beyond science into the public consciousness. Along with the
national flag, a Christmas tree or other venerable symbols, the double
helix has become a visual shorthand for a range of emotions and beliefs
about the nature of life.
"What does it mean that
we are surrounded by these double helixes everywhere?" said Soraya de
Chadarevian, a historian of science who curated an exhibition of
representations of the double helix for the Whipple Museum of the
History of Science at the University of Cambridge. "Even if you don't
know what these genes do, it's a simple symbol that stands for much
Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists are
sometimes dismayed at the shape their prized molecule takes in the
realm of culture. For one thing, it is often shown backward, twisting
impossibly to the left on magazine covers, newspapers or cartoons.
Thomas D. Schneider, a molecular information theorist at the National
Institutes of Health, created a Web site, the Left-Handed DNA Hall of
Fame at www.lecb.ncifcrf.gov /~toms/LeftHanded.DNA.html, in an attempt
to stop this particular mutation.
significantly, some scientists worry that the heavy dose of genetic
determinism embodied in many cultural messages about DNA is misguided
and will lead the public to a fatalistic view of genetics, rather than
embracing it as the future of medicine and a font of knowledge about
Dr. Jan Witkowski, director of the
Banbury Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has amassed a
collection of such material to use as props for his lectures debunking
One illustration shows a man trapped in a barbed wire double helix. In another, helixes are shown as handcuffs.
cartoon shows a couple driving in a car, the husband saying to his
wife, "I'm genetically determined not to ask for directions."
sure geneticists think more favorably of genetics and DNA than most of
the public does," Dr. Witkowski said. "It's something of a shock to see
it associated with handcuffs."
scientists like it or not, cartoons, art exhibits and movies may be the
best hope for engaging a broader public in discussion — or even basic
education — of their work.
When the 1997 movie
"Gattaca" came out, depicting a dystopia where genetic determinism has
been taken to an extreme, its Web site forums acted as hosts for
debates arguing whether moviegoers would prefer to design their own
child or "roll the genetic dice."
"A lot more
people were prompted to think about genetics by seeing `Gattaca' than
going to the Human Genome Project Web site," said Eugene Thacker, an
assistant professor in the literature, communications and culture
department at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Culture serves as a
public sphere where these anxieties can be worked through."
the Nitpickers movie fan site, for instance, a question by one
nitpicker prompted a long discussion about the science behind the
dramatic moment in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," when a scientist
exclaims "He's got DNA!"
"Is my high school biology
off," one wants to know, "or doesn't every living creature (alien or
not) have DNA in its cell nuclei?"
"I am not sure
how many aliens you have examined," came the patient reply, "but one of
the unanswered questions about potential extraterrestrial life is how
close it matches life on earth."
Another E.T. fan
noted that the recent rerelease of the movie has changed the dialogue
slightly: we learn that "He doesn't have four nucleotides like we do.
He has six."
Salvador Dalí saw himself as the first
painter to incorporate the double helix, in his 1963
"Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid." Early work in genetic engineering
in the 1970's led to science fiction movies about genetically
engineered monsters that included an updated version of the H. G. Wells
classic "The Island of Dr. Moreau" in 1977 and found its first true
blockbuster in 1993's "Jurassic Park," featuring hungry dinosaurs
cloned from prehistoric DNA.
The cultural obsession
with O. J. Simpson's trial in 1995 may have done more to raise public
awareness of one aspect of DNA's significance, as a genetic
fingerprint, than any work of science or fiction. Bijan, the designer
of DNA perfume, recalls an increase in sales when DNA tests showed that
Mr. Simpson's blood matched that found at the crime scene — not
entirely accounted for by an order from Mr. Simpson's lawyer, Robert
Shapiro, for 250 bottles for his staff.
years, art has reflected the broader public ambivalence about
biotechnology applications of DNA, raising questions about who owns the
rights to an individual's genetic identity. "From Code to Commodity:
Genetics and Visual Art," which opened last week at the New York
Academy of Sciences, showcases Larry Miller's genome copyright
certificates, among several other examples.
some portrayals of the double helix remain openly celebratory. "Blue
Man Group," a long-running performance art show in New York and Las
Vegas, presents the double helix on a screen as the show opens and
twines together tubes spinning from the ceiling into a
three-dimensional double helix at the end.
it portrays the ritualistic communion that takes place in the entire
room," said Chris Wink, one of the show's creators. "As a kind of icon
of something unique emerging that you couldn't predict even if you knew
all the parts in advance."
Carolyn Forsman, who has
sold almost 250,000 of the DNA bracelets she designed 10 years ago,
says part of its popularity is because of the associations it has with
the origin of life, how much of your identity is preordained and how
much you have control over.
"But really what it is is it's pretty," Ms. Forsman said. "It's just a beautiful form."
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