CHROMOS: Get inside your genes

14 June 2017

Interview with

Mikhail Spivakov and Csilla Varnai, Babraham Institute

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Kat Arney recently headed up to Cambridge to chair a fascinating event entitled CHROMOS, run by the Babraham Institute - a research institute nestling in the countryside just outside the city. This was no ordinary evening - guests were invited to step right inside the human genome, using virtual reality headsets to experience a writhing, dancing world of DNA created by visual artist Andy Lomas using real data about three-dimensional chromosome structure generated from experiments by the institute’s scientists.

In addition, leading electronic musician Max Cooper created an atmospheric soundtrack inspired by the science and the visualisation - that’s the music you can hear in the background. Before the event got started, Kat caught up with Mikhail Spivakov and Csilla Varnai from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge to find out how this unusual collaboration came to life.

Mikhail - The idea was that the analysis of the three-dimensional structure of the DNA and how the DNA is packaged in the nucleus, they are extremely important for understanding how cells use the DNA to do what they need to do. But it’s also extremely visually appealing and we felt that it would be a great opportunity to bridge our science with the art to actually tell people with more and maybe give them a bit more of a feel for how the DNA is and what it is.

Kat - So how did you go about trying to create this art because it’s not just visual art, is it? It’s music as well.

Mikhail - So that started from my reading an interview with Max Cooper where he mentioned that he has a PhD in computational biology. I was really excited and I thought actually, he must be the ideal person to do this kind of stuff with. So I contacted him via Twitter and he got really excited.

We had him over to Babraham Institute and it’s then that we decided to really create a project which is not just music about the DNA, music inspired by DNA, but also, the video and that’s when Max got Andy involved who he’s been working with for a number of occasions. It turned into a music video project about the DNA and how the DNA is arranged in the nucleus.

Kat - Where do the virtual reality component come in because it’s absolutely fantastic  - I’ve had a go at flying through all these data?

Csilla - That was entirely Andy’s idea. So we commissioned Andy and Max to make a music video for us and then at one of our meetings, Andy showed up with a VR kit and we could all immerse ourselves in this virtual reality, looking at a molecule in three dimensions.

Kat - It’s like being in the matrix. You’ve got all these twisting things in space. You can put yourself right inside it and see all these coils moving around. What is it that we’re looking at when we’re inside that environment?

Csilla - So what we are looking at is the three-dimensional structure of DNA as it was in the nucleus of the cell. We can see the actual chromosomes moving individually and apart from this, we can also see red hot spots where there are active genes of DNA and they form various clusters, and that’s where all the genes are being read as recipes to make proteins for the cell.

Kat - This is your actual data from the lab. What is that data? Where have you got it from?

Csilla - I got this data from experiments that my colleagues do at the Babraham Institute. What the data comes from is effectively contact information about the DNA. So, we have a list of contacts about which parts of the DNA is in contact with other parts of the DNA. Using that information, my job is to reconstruct what the likely shape of the chromosomes was in the nucleus of the cell.

Kat - As a scientist, how do you feel when you're standing in that virtual environment and looking at your work spinning around you.

Csilla - It’s fantastic! I've seen it in two dimensions before or in various other pieces of software where you could drag and move the molecules around, but it is literally entering a new dimension.

Kat - Csilla Varnai, and before her Mikhail Spivakov from the Babraham Institute.

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