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Tracing out a scientific discovery

By Harold Lee

Nov. 9, 2003 9:00 p.m.

The Fowler Museum of Cultural History’s “Ecce
Homology” is one exhibit that has a science behind the

A late addition to the Fowler’s multi-faceted exhibition
called “From the Verandah: Art, Buddhism, Presence,”
“Ecce Homology” uses Asia’s staple crop to
explore the genomic relationships that give form and function to
both humans and rice. But it does so in a way that makes it easy
for anyone to understand.

The interactive exhibit measures 60 feet wide and 12 feet tall
and allows visitors to trace out calligraphic brush strokes using
their body movements and, in turn, contribute to a scientific
experiment that looks for relationships between human and rice

“Science and arts have very different approaches to
knowledge; the question here is not how different they are, but how
they can come together,” said Ruth West, a lecturer for the
UCLA Design Media Arts Department who led a team of artists and
scientists to conceptualize and create the installation. Experts
from the UCLA HyperMedia Studio, DOE Center for Genomics and
Proteomics, Computer Graphics Laboratory and the Bioinformatics
User facility all had a hand in its creation.

Though visitors may only see simple brush strokes through their
interactions, the installation is actually a complex interplay
between a camera, computers and projectors.

Until a visitor enters the “Ecce Homology”
installation and stands still, the system is in a resting mode,
said Jeff Burke, a lecturer and assistant researcher in the
Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. When visitors
settle down in front of the exhibit, an overhead camera follows
their slow hand movements, which are then relayed to projectors
that display the track of the movements.

These movements are actually ways to conceptualize genes, which
are typically represented as sequences of letters. Genes are the
inspiration for the installation, but for the purposes of the
project, the genes are reinterpreted as algorithms making it
possible for genes and the proteins to be viewed as pictograms.

Algorithms are computerized manipulations of data in a
systematic way and can be used to create illustrations using gene
and protein data, said Cheryl Kerfeld, a structural biologist at
the UCLA Department of Energy Center for Genomics and

“There are different ways to perform different functions
on a given piece of information,” Kerfeld said.

The gene-protein pictograms, which resemble calligraphic script,
are novel representations of genetic information that do not follow
the typical rules.

“We’re representing the data in radically different
ways than one finds in a scientific journal,” Kerfeld

Scientists know the three-dimensional structures of some
proteins, but the structures for a vast majority of proteins are
unknown, she explained.

If a human gene-protein pictogram is matched with the
visitor-created image, then the Basic Local Alignment Sequence Tool
finds a rice gene with similar genetic data and the human and rice
pictograms are compared to each other, Burke said.

The idea for the installation originated a year ago, when West
was teaching a group of students at UCLA how to use the BLAST to
research genomes. The BLAST database consists of a complete list of
genetic sequences contributed by researchers worldwide to the
public domain. But unlike most other scientific databases, BLAST
has a set default that simplifies all the data for

“I realized that even the students who did not completely
understand what was going on could do the experiment. In fact, not
all scientists who use it know everything about BLAST,” said
West. The high accessibility of BLAST allows West and her team to
bring this experience to a larger audience, making the data more
personal to viewers.

The BLAST search conducted in the “Ecce Homology”
exhibit is conducted on a smaller scale, as it compares only
subsets of the human and rice genomes.

Of the estimated 50,000 rice genes and the estimated 30,000
human genes in their respective genomes, only the genes that create
proteins responsible for carbon metabolism were chosen.

“We only chose a subset … to resonate with the carbon
motif that permeates throughout (Fowler’s) Verandah
gallery,” she said.

Certain elements of the installation are not unique to
“Ecce Homology” and are used in many other interactive
art pieces.

“There are many experiments that use video to track the
body’s motions and others that search through a large
database, but this is a unique combination,” Burke said.

Such a combination will allow all types of people to interact
with a very complex and intricate process. Among the viewers on
opening night was a 3-year-old girl who, upon discovering her
movements could change the genome images on the screen, waved her
arms constantly to create more changes.

“That girl was having a great time without understanding
what was going on,” said West “To me, that is the
“˜real experience’ I hope every viewer can

With reports from Crystal Cheung, dB Magazine contributor.
The “Ecce Homology” exhibit will be on display at the
Fowler Museum of Cultural History until Jan. 4, 2004.

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Harold Lee
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