Tag Archives: genetics

The Y Chromosome

Chromosomes carry the genetic code that determines the characteristics of a living thing. They are fascinating due to the varied factors they determine, the sometimes negative effects they can have and their complexity. Equally interesting are the stories of their discoveries. This series will explore the history of specific chromosomes and their impact on science.

Humans typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of these is comprised of our sex-determining chromosomes, X and Y. Taryn Cain continues this series by looking at the Y chromosome.

The first mammals were tiny, shrew-like creatures that were still many millions of years away from being awoken by the melodic sound of an iPhone alarm or travelling to work in a huge piece of metal crammed with other mammals. While they carried on with their “simple” lives of eating and evading being eaten themselves, their DNA was also a fairly simple arrangement. All their chromosomes were autosomes and male/female differentiation was managed by genes on various autosomes rather than specific sex chromosomes.

Then a mutation occurred.

Continue reading The Y Chromosome

The X chromosome

Chromosomes carry the genetic code that determines the characteristics of a living thing. They are fascinating due to the varied factors they determine, the sometimes negative effects they can have and their complexity. Equally interesting are the stories of their discoveries. This series will explore the history of specific chromosomes and their impact on science.

Humans typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of these is comprised of our sex-determining chromosomes, X and Y. Taryn Cain starts this series off by looking at the X chromosome.

When cytologist Hermann Henking looked down his microscope in 1891, he was surprised to see that approximately half of his fire wasps had a spare chromosome floating around. Confused and intrigued, he named his lonely chromosome the “X element”.

Continue reading The X chromosome

Contemplating the Contemporary: Sculpture

Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In the first of a new blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at sculpture in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.

Contemporary art of the twenty-first century is driven in part by advancements and innovations in the practice of sculpture. In particular, artists are interested in using mixed media, found objects and ready-mades, triumphed by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp, and at the same time, developing highly sophisticated forms of fabrication, as exemplified by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. These contemporary strategies to making sculpture are continued with some of the artists featured in the Medicine Now gallery. Click each image for more information.

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon. 1959. (© 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel. 1951. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp)
Jeff Koons, Pink Panther. 1988. (© 2014 Jeff Koons)
Takashi Murakami, Fire sculpture. 2013. (© 2013 Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)
Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided). 1993-2007. (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.)

In the first space in Medicine Now, on the theme of Obesity and Genetics, there are two sculptures produced by John Isaacs and Rob Kesseler. Isaacs’ sculpture is striking and one of the first works visitors recognise in the gallery. I Can’t Help the Way I Feel was produced in 2004 and made predominantly from wax. Wax and wax-like materials such as fibreglass plastic have been investigated by a range of contemporary artists from Duane Hanson to Ron Mueck, predominantly in the pursuit of hyperrealism and strange, uncanny representations of the body.

John Isaacs, I Can Not Help The Way I Feel. 2003. (Courtesy of Wellcome Collection, London.)
Duane Hanson, Man on Mower. 1995. (© Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY)
Ron Mueck, A Girl. 2006. (© National Gallery of Canada.)

Despite its popularity as a material, this is not your typical wax sculpture of a famous celebrity you would find at Madame Tussaud’s. John Isaacs’s sculpture, in effect, could represent anyone and, at the same time, serves as an allegory of obesity; the ultimate visualisation of excessive consumption, corpulence and greed. The sculpture is pulsating and visceral, a quality which Isaacs exaggerates and seizes as an opportunity to strike our imagination about the possibilities of obesity. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect represented through its amorphous curves and folds is the anonymity of such a sculpture which could at once appear realistic and unknown. In this way, Isaacs presents a subject which is less about itself and more about our own critical reception and attitudes towards body image and its relationship to space.

Shown together with Kesseler’s, Bud, from 2002, the two sculptures deliberate ideas of consumption and the body. In contrast to Isaacs, who is much more hands on and appreciates the materiality and humanity of sculpture, Kessler presents a sculpture with no trace of his body and emphasises the sophisticated processes of creating new media through its fabrication.

Rob Kesseler, Bud. 2002. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

The sculpture is a glass vessel, shaped like a wine glass, missile or trophy, and filled with genetically modified soy beans. Kessler’s exploration of genetic modification considers some of the multifaceted positions surrounding the subject.

On one level, there are the unknown consequences of genetic modification. In particular, there is the concern that genetically modified foods could adversely affect our health while having an unforeseen impact on the environment. On another level, there are the obvious advantages of genetic modification: accelerated food production could yield a surplus which could eradicate hunger and world poverty.

Kesseler’s slickness and austere minimalism is used to great effect with this work of art and is a characteristic which follows some of the other key works in Medicine Now, including sculptures by Mauro Peruchetti, Annie Cattrell and Luke Jerram. The act of reducing an object to its most basic form is used to demonstrate the spiritual essence or physicality of a work of art, as spearheaded with modernist masters such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Richard Serra. In other cases it is used to emphasise ideas of industrialisation, consumerism and mechanical reproduction, exemplified by the gaudy, oversized sculptures of cheeseburgers, ice cream and cake by Claes Oldenburg, comparable to Peruchetti’s series of deliciously coloured  jelly babies made from polyurethane. Everyday life, through both subject matter and material, thus becomes a central focus of contemporary sculpture displayed in Medicine Now and remains an integral aspect of international artists working today.

Annie Cattrell, SENSE. 2001-2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack). 1967. (© Helen Acheson Bequest (by exchange) and gift of Joseph Helman)
Luke Jerram, Swine Flu Virus (H1N1). (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
Mauro Perucchetti, Jelly Baby 3. 2004. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake. 1962. (© 2014 Claes Oldenburg.)

Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object(s) of the month: Origin and Fossil Necklace

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Aside from sounding like the ramblings of a philosophy student at three in the morning these are the ever pertinent questions addressed by two artworks currently on display at Wellcome Collection. This month Charlie Morgan takes a look at how these objects may offer answers to those questions.

Regular visitors to Medicine Now will be familiar with Origin by Daniel Lee. The looped video shows an animated Coelacanth-type fish evolve through reptiles and primates into a modern human: the scales disappear, the tails get shorter and, eventually, the body stands upright. By using smooth linking manipulated photos as opposed to clunky still images we are able to experience evolution as a fluid process and not just as a series of isolated points throughout history. Four floors up and in our Foreign Bodies: Common Ground exhibition, another piece does something very similar.

Origin by Daniel Lee
Origin by Daniel Lee

Katie Paterson is an award-winning Scottish artist who for six months was in residence at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Here she became interested in genomic archaeology and after sourcing 170 different fossils (the oldest of which is a mere 3.5 billion years old) she had them carved into identically shaped beads and strung up on a necklace. The result is the first fashion accessory to document the history of life on earth and the first to ask the question “does my dinosaur stomach stone match my shoes?”

In Origin, the Coelacanth that starts the video emerged about 350-400 million years ago; in Fossil Necklace it would probably only appear about halfway down the right hand side. Fossil Necklace instead begins with the first single celled bacterial organisms to populate earth around 3.6 billion years ago. Since then, the earth and the living creatures that reside on it have developed, changed and evolved. As Katie Paterson notes, the only real links we have between them all is the DNA that the Sanger Institute studies and the fossils that she has collected.

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson
Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

While Fossil Necklace ends with the occurrence of written records approximately five thousand years ago, it also gives us a basis to pose questions about the future. Through Fossil Necklace we encounter five mass extinction events. These include the Late Devonian extinction which wiped out 75% of life on earth, but which was then topped by the aptly named ‘Great Dying’ and a whopping 95%. The most recent mass extinction was the most famous, the K/T extinction, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs and a subsequent abundance of competing “whodunnit?” theories. 65 million years later and in an age of uncontested human dominance, a number of scientists are speculating a future – or, more accurately, an already underway – sixth extinction event: the Holocene extinction. We’ve already seen the death of the Dodo, the Auroch and the Mammoth to name but three amongst many, many others but it’s now estimated that “nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild”. How many of our present day creatures will soon just be fossils on a necklace?

Likewise Origin, by emphasising the various stages of human evolution (and as a result emphasising the ways in which those stages have adapted in order to survive), allows us to ask questions about what the future might hold for humanity. There is no shortage of theories; transhumanism anticipates a future merging of humanity with technology; a scientist has predicted we’ll soon be growing beaks; and one visitor to Foreign Bodies has suggested that the X-Men might be the most realistic prediction of future evolution. There is not much evidence to suggest humans are currently moving towards a new anatomical form or that we’ll soon be self-healing or shape shifting. Still, faced with constant fluctuations in the environment, climate and inhabitants of earth, both Fossil Necklace and Origin suggest we can be sure of one thing: something’s going to change.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Foreign Bodies: Common Ground is on until 16th March.

Around the World in 80 Days – Part 6: Germany

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project. In the latest of his diary entries, Barry makes a brief stop somewhere a little closer to home: Berlin.

As a researcher back in the early 90s, I spent several months living and working in Berlin, Germany, doing a spot of ad-hoc science at the Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics. I remember buses that ran like clockwork, the intense cold and Tacheles, a huge department store that had become a squat and home to some of the most amazing art and raves.

Back at Tegel Airport, memories began fighting their way through the treacle of time as I made my way to meet Katie Paterson, the artist-in-residence at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK (who, before you ask, lives in Germany ­– hence my being here and not back home!).

Arriving at Katie’s place, she and her partner immediately welcomed me into the space in which Katie thinks and creates; a cubic, entirely white room. Whilst often filled with materials and objects of inspiration (offering clues to Katie’s cerebral interests), today the contents of this room were minimal – perfect for our interview.

Despite the studio being right beside a main road, we were a few storeys up – far enough away from the traffic to stop noise being too much of an issue. And, thanks to large windows all across this street facing wall, I was able to place Katie looking directly into a flood of natural light, making the most of a sunny day and her unusually bright, blue eyes.

Katie P

The interview itself was an opportunity to gather material for the film but also to gain a deeper insight into how Katie sees the world. As it turns out, she is interested in nothingness, the absence of things: space and time. Within the context of her apartment, beyond the studio, this manifests itself in meteorite fragments and rocks of varying texture, a physical map of the moon, books about space. At the Sanger Institute, her discussions with scientists led her down a path of inquiry into the genetic heritage of humanity; where did the first humans emerge, how did they spread across the planet?

In Katie’s own words, “I believe work being undertaken in genome sequencing at the Sanger Institute can allow us to penetrate questions of existence: contemplate who we are, where we have come from and how we relate to one another, and enable us to be part of a complex decision-making process about the possible direction of our species.”

After the interview, with a deeper respect for Katie and her work, there followed a filming challenge – how do you show the internal creative processes of a person who, when not busy creating their works, spends her increasingly rare moments of tranquility deep in thought, formulating ideas? Shots of Katie simply staring into space seemed a little hackneyed so, fortunately, Katie shared that she keeps written notes, notes she was prepared to add to. Bingo.

There are so many nuances of human behavior, even within the simplest of actions, that I now knew we’d have enough coverage of Katie ‘thinking’. Wide and mid shots, macro shots, the pencil moving across the page, the eyes as they pause and consider. Finally, Katie introduced me to their two new kittens, fragile lumps of fluff with legs. These had nothing to do with DNA and human heritage but everything to do with fun and the promise of moments of levity between those deeper thoughts.

The next morning came all too quickly. Leaving for the airport at 4am, time suddenly felt very present. I was about to travel across countries and time zones, flying beneath stars that still filled the dark sky, bathing the planet in light from millions of years in the past. This sudden, profound awareness of space and time, I have called, the Paterson Effect.

Barry J Gibb

Barry J Gibb is a Science Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.

Read Barry’s previous diary entries.

Find out more about Art in Global Health on the Wellcome Collection website.