Friday, January 25, 2013

Inspiring Molecular Biology - Merging Science with Art

Sew Hungry

I am a molecular biologist. I study very tiny things to learn more about diseases like cancer so we can be closer to a cure. In reality, my day to day duties consist mainly of moving small amounts of liquid from one tube to another. I met a lot of other quilters out there who also stemmed from the sciences. I suppose the joy in doing repetitive tasks in research draw the same types of people to quilting.

But this is a post for everyone, not just the ones who get giddy over DNA sequence and electromicroscopy. I think there is a real art and beauty to the science we perform. Many of the patterns in the natural world could lend themselves to some striking and modern quilt designs. I've chose a few common scientific images from molecular biology to illustrate my point.

DNA sequences
This is a group of related DNA sequences. As you may remember from biology class our DNA is an alphabet with only four letters, A, T, C, G. The number and order of these letters is the basis of what makes us who we are. When you line up related sequence the result is an interesting pattern - not quite random - not completely ordered. Wouldn't this make a striking quilt design?

In fact, Beverly St. Clair makes these gorgeous genome quilts. Each letter of the DNA code corresponds to an HST in a different orientation. You can literally read her quilt and decipher the DNA code. I made a genome quilt last year as a graduation gift for my PhD thesis mentor. I even used a DNA print from spoonflower as one of the letters. 

The CrPV IGR IRES RNA sequence.

DNA gel
This is an image of the DNA separated by size on a gel. You have probably seen images like this on some of the forensic science shows. Because each person has a unique DNA sequence, the pattern of the DNA when separated on a gel will be unique. This is one way we can determine paternity.

These image have false coloring - sadly our DNA is not actually a rainbow of colors in our bodies, but, it creates a beautiful image.  There are companies that will turn your DNA into artwork. I can easily see the quilt possibilities here.

Did you know that viruses love hexis too? A virus is composed of DNA surrounded by a protein shell, or capsid. The capsid is made of of lots of small proteins that interlock to form a hollow shell. 

Viral capsid (Jäälinoja HT et al. PNAS, 2008)

The capsids are a real testament to the process of assembly. Imagine if you collected a bunch of hexagons and pentagons and put them on the ground and they assembled themselves into this...

That is what viruses do. They make hexagons and pentagons and turn them into 3D shells. Luckily we quilters only have to work in two dimensions. 

I haven't seen anyone use a virus structure as the inspiration for a quilt yet but I would love to see it happen.

Congrats for making it to the end of the post. I hope you enjoyed this foray into where science and art merge. Maybe you even have a few ideas stewing. Or maybe you are bored to tears. So feedback anyone? Do you want to see more posts like this?

Either way, Happy Friday!


  1. I LOVE IT. But then again, I'm a chemist and I'm working on periodic table placemats. :)

  2. Feedback=more science quilts from you, please! :) I do enjoy seeing a different kind of quilt inspiration post. My husband is a biochemist and is also very interested in bio- designs. He likes to gripe every time he sees DNA pictured the wrong-handed way.

  3. Way cool! I love the way you see patterns in everything.

  4. Hi Marla! I loved this post so much! My Ph.D is in the social sciences, so I have less experience with how work can literally look like a quilt, but I love the images that you shared, and the stories behind them! I often found parallels between the process of conducting research (and writing my dissertation) and making a quilt, and seeing the finished product of a quilt motivated me to work on my research. It's really great to see the arts and sciences intersect in such cool ways!

  5. I find it super interesting. More please! :D

  6. That is so cool! My Dad is a scientist too, so I should be looking in his archives for inspiration!

  7. I am also a fellow molecular biologist, and find it interesting that I see many biologists doing some sort of creative or crafty hobby after the lab hours. I was often wondering why is that, and figured, that putting together a bugger picture from joining small pieces is maybe that is common in both tasks. And probably other things too, but that is what I figured. As I recently moved into a new office I have a plan to make something 'work related', maybe a DNA quilt or something... We'll see...

  8. MORE. ALL. THE. TIME. *nerdgasm*

  9. Fascinating! This is a new perspective for me, and it really is interesting and inspiring to learn about and see how it is translated into art. Way cool! Thanks so much for sharing this. :)