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Chromosome Structure Inspires Intricate Works of Art

A collaboration between a Virginia Tech entomology professor, art professor, and computer science professor working in biophysics has resulted in the creation of stunning works of art that can help researchers and the public better understand the function of DNA and chromosomes in many important cellular processes.

Fueled by arts integration, this work is made possible by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), which supports Virginia Tech students and faculty working at the intersection of science, engineering, art, and design to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Chromatin is a substance that makes up chromosomes and is responsible for packing several feet of DNA inside a nucleus that is only a few micrometers in size, all while protecting the DNA’s structure and sequence. The three-dimensional organization of chromatin has been found to play a pivotal role in many key cellular processes, including DNA replication, repair, and transcription, and can also signal cancer progression and other pathologies.

With so much DNA packed into such a small space, the sheer density makes it difficult for researchers to create computational models using current standard visualization tools that detail the DNA hierarchy. New tools and concepts, aided by powerful computation, are needed to create interactive, information-rich visualizations, which will help researchers better understand the complexities and function of DNA and chromosomes.

“A visual representation of chromatin in a computational model is important for a better understanding of how DNA is organized and functioning inside a cell nucleus. Computational models make it possible to focus on visualization of the most relevant information within a highly complex chromatin organization,” said researcher Igor Sharakhov, an entomology professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “For example, we may choose to visualize how interaction between chromosome domains is associated with changes in gene expression. Also, a chromatin structural hierarchy can be revealed within the same visualization tool, while different experimental methods are necessary to study each of these structural levels.”

Sharakhov and Alexey Onufriev, professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, are using experimental data along with computational models of chromosome organization in fruit flies and mosquitoes to create a prototype tool that provides visualizations of the chromatin on a variety of scales, revealing a fractal architecture filled with complex patterns.

“The complexity of the DNA compaction inside the cell nucleus translates into multiple challenges in modeling the structure and dynamics of the corresponding structural forms, including fractals,” explained Onufriev.

It is these geometric complexities that are inspiring Eric Standley, an associate professor of studio art in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, to create a series of layered paper-cut artifacts that visually represent the fundamental building blocks of life. More simply, this work is translating the language of 3D chromosome organization into the language of art.

“It sounds like the beginning of a joke — what do an artist, entomologist, and biophysicist have in common?” said Standley. “When I first met with Igor and Alexey, we immediately recognized that our independent research goals all involved articulating complexities that could not be expressed traditionally. It was clear from the beginning of the project that my role would not be as an illustrator, but as an artist. To discover and develop creative influences from their research to inform my own would require a unique relationship — one that can only happen in the space of academia that allows for theories, speculations, and risks. Working with this team has changed how I think about my studio work as well as life in general.”

These unique pieces of art are accessible representations of the mathematical and visual complexities of the DNA packing phenomenon. Standley’s work will be showcased in art museums and galleries for audiences of all ages, bringing science out of the laboratory and into the public eye. Some of his work was recently featured in “ICAT: Open (at the) Source,” a Moss Arts Center exhibition that encouraged visitors to explore and experience the research and innovation that’s happening within ICAT.

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