IN THE MIDST OF COMMISsioning my self-portrait a few weeks ago, I gave my chin a few tentative pokes. No, I wasn't vainly trying to tighten a drooping jowl or practicing which pose might render my appearance with suitable gravitas. Rather, as I probed the inside of my mouth with a swab the size of a small lollipop, I was harvesting cheek cells that contain deoxyribonucleic acid for what will eventually become a painting of my DNA.
Earlier, I'd learned of dna11.com, a company based in Ottawa that has "From life comes art" as its marketing slogan. So, after carefully pressing the swab's spongy tip onto a chemically treated pink card, which turned white after contact with my saliva, I sent my cells to be sorted, scanned, photo-developed and enlarged onto a 24-by-36-inch canvas, rendering a unique image of, well, Mini-Me.
Cheeky portraits are only one example of a recent proliferation of DNA-themed objets d'art, souvenirs and collectibles that include everything from mouse pads and coffee mugs to temporary tattoos and dangling, "chandelier-style" earrings in DNA's distinctively curvilinear shape. DNA Art of Groningen, Netherlands, will laser your genetic code into a cube of crystal; and Eiwa Industry Co., based in Tokyo, offers the opportunity to preserve chromosomal material inside a sterling silver amulet.
The demand for artifacts of one's microscopic existence -- I have DNA, therefore I am -- is expected to increase as we approach April 25, which is DNA Day. It isn't circled on your calendar? Then perhaps you're unaware that on this date in 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick, up until this point a pair of researchers toiling away in total obscurity at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, published a short article about their discovery of the structure of DNA in the scientific journal Nature.
They theorized that deoxyribonucleic acid was shaped like a twisted ladder or "double helix," this last word meaning a spiral (a screw's thread is a helix). The young scientists also noted that DNA could "unzip" and copy itself, confirming what had up to that point only been suspected. Namely, that DNA was a substance that embodies the genetic code and stores hereditary information, which is passed from one generation to the next.
Crick and Watson were awarded the Noble Prize in 1962. Since then, their esoteric theory, once of interest to only a handful of scientists, has transformed the way we think about many things, including preventive medicine and criminal prosecution. Of late, its imprint is even visible in the worlds of fashion and home decor.
For instance, Kathleen Barnes, a biological anthropologist who does research in immunogenetics, is the proud owner of a DNA lamp that she displays on her desk at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center. She found it at thednastore.com, when she was about to give a "Career Day" presentation to a group of elementary school students and went online hoping to find a model of DNA for use as a visual aid.
"When I saw the lamp, I just had to have it. I thought it would really spiff up my office," Barnes says with a chuckle. Though she at first considered it merely a lark, as she's pondered it day after day, Barnes claims the lamp has deepened her appreciation of DNA's beauty.
"There is just something incredibly elegant and perfect about the design of the double helix," she says. "All of what makes us us, is wrapped up in this symbol. We must somehow feel connected to it instinctively, because the double helix is our ancestry and our progeny, both."
If Cathy Soref has her way, everyone would not only feel the same way as Barnes, but would also buy into, literally, the pioneering work of Crick (who died in 2004) and Watson, who is chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. It's as easy as shopping at the DNA Stuff shop, bookstore and Web site, which Soref operates from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and that offers a variety of DNA-inspired items, from blue jeans and neckties to crystal candlesticks and golf balls. There's even -- gulp! -- a bobblehead doll of Watson.
Soref, who was an heiress of the Grumman Aerospace fortune, estimates she's invested up to $1 million of her own money into developing the merchandise for DNA Stuff, in hopes that proceeds from their sales will provide future funds for the laboratory.
"Watson will be remembered 500 years from now. He is Darwin, Einstein and Newton combined. Arguably, his discoveries will have greater impact than any of these scientists. When Watson was in China last month, people greeted him like he was Elvis; yet in America, no one knows who he is," she says.
Soref sighs before continuing. "The double helix is as universal a symbol as the heart, but it creates the heart. DNA Stuff products, then, have both style and substance. My dream is that one of our products will cross over into popular culture. That way, we will have money for genetic research, instead of it going to Paloma Picasso and Tiffany."
Some complain that the preponderance of such offerings, as well the slang way deoxyribonucleic acid is invoked in advertising and business -- referring to an automobile's or a company's "DNA," to describe its method of operation -- actually has a deleterious effect on science by overly simplifying a complex reality about which there's still much to be learned. One such detractor is J. Craig Venter, who is founder and president of his eponymously named genomic research institute in Rockville.
"I am not an art critic," Venter says. "The part I worry about, though, is that whenever people talk about the double helix, what's shown is one extremely tiny part of one section of a chromosome. You'd have to multiply this by billions. What Watson and Crick did was a very important phase by guessing what DNA looks like. The colors are nice and I do consider it beautiful, but I'm also concerned about accuracy."
Venter's point is well-taken. DNA's mystery is far deeper than can be expressed by a candlestick etched with a twisting ladder. And yet, others find Crick and Watson's imaginative leap captivating because it had the audacity to depict the essence of life so simply. A coil forever spooling and unraveling, the double helix for them is as potent a mnemonic as the peace symbol, a national flag or a sport's team colors.
Consider the hundreds of young girls at the Bryn Mawr Lower School in Baltimore, who have first wrapped their hands around the concept of deoxyribonucleic acid by exercising on a large, metal DNA-shaped climbing apparatus that sits in the school's yard. Constructed in 1996 by Stan Edmister (the local artist who also painted bridges over the Jones Falls) to celebrate the school's 25th anniversary, it gives a workout to both minds and muscles, believes associate headmistress Peggy Bessant.
"We study how DNA functions in the body, but this sculpture takes it from the philosophical into the physical," she says. "It is a representation the girls will never forget, as they've climbed on, in, and through it."
Emily Shaw is a Baltimore-based medical illustrator who did many of the drawings at Genetics Home Reference (ghr.nlm.nih.gov), a Web site that explains genetics to the nonscientific community. The current vogue for DNA art, Shaw believes, is explained by humanity's innate aesthetic attraction to endlessly repeating designs, as well as our desire to somehow distinguish ourselves as individuals.
"I am not surprised that the subtle nuances of our genetic makeup are becoming an iconographic display of self-expression," she says. "With tattooing, piercing, trends in fashion, music and fine art becoming so commonplace and globalized, we are running out of ways to outwardly brand ourselves as unique beings."
This is an opinion shared by Nazim Ahmed, one of the co-founders of dna11.com. I phoned Ahmed the other day, as I was curious to check on the progress of my self-portrait.
"Classic, modern, abstract, pop -- all artwork marks the particular era in which it was created, right?" he says. "I think, in the future, when people look back at DNA art, they will see it as coming from an unbelievable, exciting time when we were discovering things about ourselves and what we are truly made of.
"Not to mention that such a portrait will only become more precious over time," hesaid. "I mean, think about it. DNA is the ultimate family heirloom." ONLINE RESOURCES
If you'd like to learn more about DNA or DNA art, check out these Web sites:
Or, make a field trip to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1 Bungtown Road, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. 516-367-8455 or www.cshl.edu. This facility on the North Shore of Long Island, about an hour east of New York City, offers free 90-minute tours, each with a maximum of 30 people, generally at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. Monday-Saturday by appointment only. Parking is free at the laboratory campus in lots marked for visitors.