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50th Anniversary of DNA Discovery - 2003-02-26


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, the microscopic data every cell contains, and upon which all life on earth is based. New York is commemorating the anniversary with a six-part exhibition celebrating the often-overlooked partnership between art and science. Dr. James Watson, who made the discovery with Dr. Francis Crick, was on hand to view the sculptures, photographs, and paintings his research inspired.

The "sound" of DNA emanated from a meter-high, three-dimensional sculpture depicting the human body's "genetic environment". The piece, called "Telomeres Project on Imminent Immortality" is part of the "DNAge: Genomic Issues, Art and Science" exhibition.

The work's creator, Ellen Sandor, sounds more like a scientist than an artist when she talks about the piece. The sculpture, she said, depicts "telomeres," which are found at the end of the chromosome strand. "Telomeres may hold the key to dramatically increased human lifespan. If we are able to control which groups of cells are immortal, and which are not, by turning on and off the regenerating telomerase enzyme, then we would have the power to neutralize cancer, revive the immune system of AIDS victims and, in the least, reduce suffering and save countless lives," Ms. Sandor said.

Ms. Sandor's work is based on the double helix, the twisted ladder-like structure of DNA revealed by Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick in February of 1953, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. The men received the Nobel Prize for their discovery nine years later.

Only trillionths of a centimeter in size, the double helix contains an organism's complete genetic information. If one could unravel a strip of DNA, it would reach almost 200 centimeters in length.

Dr. Watson said illustrating the extraordinary discovery was one of the first problems. "I am a terrible artist. I can not draw. Francis can not draw. Francis and I have no artistic talent at all," he said.

Dr. Watson said artists quickly became interested in his discovery. He said legendary surrealist Salvador Dali told him that the structure "convinced him of the existence of God", to which Dr. Watson replied, "To me, it proves the opposite."

Since then, notes exhibition co-curator, Marvin Heiferman, artists have, in increasing numbers, sought to address DNA and the scientific breakthroughs to which its discovery has given birth. He said that commemorating a scientific discovery with an art exhibition makes perfect sense.

"Artists give us images that we can look at, that allow us to think about things that can be very difficult to approach with just words alone. They are very difficult ideas, and the science community often has great difficulty speaking to the lay community. Artists who can come up with images that allow people to think about these provocative ideas are serving a very important function," Mr. Heiferman said.

Kevin Clarke, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, goes further. He said artists assist scientists in the discovery process. "The deepest questions that are confronting us right now are not about the atom bomb, but about this kind of micro world within us. Artists have their own way of not only visualizing it, but bringing a new understanding also to the scientists," Mr. Clarke said.

Mr. Clarke worked with scientists in the late 1980s to develop the first DNA sequencing procedure. The experiments used his blood. He said his "need to make a certain kind of artwork inspired them to develop a certain kind of science".

Today, modern science presents us with the possibility of not only detecting disease predisposition in human embryos, but preventing disease altogether. Scientists are looking at ways to breed pigs with human cells to harvest organs for transplant. Others look to breed fruits and vegetables that contain disease-fighting agents.

There is a "darker" side of DNA, however, raising issues in the world of politics, ethics, and religion. How far should science go with genetic engineering?

Dr. Watson says he and Dr. Crick had no idea of the "Pandora's box" they were opening. "We did not dare dream that we would find anything that interesting, or simple. What a relief for me. You know, I did not have to be smart to understand it," he said.

"Genomic Issues: Art and Science" is part of the month-long "DNAge" festival of exhibitions and cultural events organized by several New York organizations, including the International Center of Photography, the New York Public Library, and the New York Academy of Sciences.

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