Art TED Fellows

7 ways to have fun with DNA

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When TED Fellow Gabriel Barcia-Colombo saw an extraction of strawberry DNA for the first time, he was smitten. “I’d never thought about DNA being a beautiful thing before I saw it in this form,” he says in today’s talk, given at the TED Fellows Retreat.

Barcia-Colombo was inspired to join the public biotech lab Genspace, where biotechnologist Oliver Medvedik had shown him that gorgeous strawberry DNA. The two worked on extracting human DNA and, from there, Barcia-Colombo took the obvious next step: holding dinner parties dedicated toward the extraction of his friends’ DNA. (You have, too, right?)

“A lot of people, especially in the art community, don’t necessarily engage in science in this way,” Barcia-Colombo says. His artist friends were really excited about the experimentation, and he was excited about their excitement. He started collecting their DNA in little vials.

One day, it hit Barcia-Colombo that DNA’s spirals look quite like a vending machine’s coils. The synergy inspired him to create an installation piece, the DNA Vending Machine, that dispenses vials of DNA along with photo portraits of their human hosts.

To hear more about the creation of this absurdist vending machine, watch the talk above. And below, a few more creative applications for DNA.

  1. DNA Portraits. Barcia-Colombo went human-scale with his DNA art. Nazim Ahmed and Adrian Salamunovic, on the other hand, went microscopic. Ahmed was working as a biotechnologist, and the images he had from his job sparked the duo’s imagination, as the two recount to They swabbed their mouths, sent their DNA off to a lab, and got back digital images of the sequences, which they turned into canvas prints. Out of that whimsical move grew a business: DNA11, where you can order your very own DNA portrait.
  2. Mixology. Why simply isolate strawberry DNA when you can isolate strawberry DNA while making a cocktail? Oliver Medvedik, the Genspace cofounder Barcia-Colombo worked with, also a TED Fellow, has a recipe that should win an award for multitasking. Read about it, and watch Medvedik’s spunky tutorial, on our blog.

  3. Abstract Representation. What do you make of Takashi Murakami’s painting, “If the Double Helix Wakes Up…”? We love the trippy blue-and-green painting created in 2002, even if the artist hasn’t said much about what inspired it.

  4. Stranger Visions. A hair stuck in the crack of a print hanging in her therapist’s office inspired the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg to begin collecting genetic material while she was out and about—and then to create portraits of their owners based on the genetic codes. The images that comprise the resulting project, “Stranger Visions,” are collected on Dewey-Hagborg’s website. Read more about Dewey-Hagborg’s work on our blog, and check out the short documentary above.

    DNA PORTRAIT from TED Blog on Vimeo.

  5. Origami. In his 2007 TED talk, Paul Rothemund explains how he makes origami out of strands of DNA — one very long, and many short — the little strands pulling the long one into a shape. Rothemund shows slides of a star, a smiley face, and even words, all made of DNA.
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  6. DIY DNA. Want to extract your own DNA? LiveScience explains that it’s really easy—you can do it with “some common kitchen ingredients”! The hardest part is swishing Gatorade in your mouth for two minutes, which, as LiveScience notes, takes a little stamina. See the full recipe here.

Have your own ideas for innovative DNA projects? Share in the comments!