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McGraw Tower lights illuminate the wonders of DNA

A new media light installation in McGraw Tower depicted a nucleotide-by-nucleotide “walk” through human genomes. Above, students test the lights Sept. 27. Photo by Matt Hayes / College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

For one weekend, the McGraw Tower clocks told more than just time.

On the evenings of Sept. 28-29, two graduate students and two postdoctoral fellows from four different departments presented a new media light installation depicting a nucleotide-by-nucleotide “walk” through human genomes. Flashing lights programmed by the students represented different populations from around the world. The light installation — called "ATGC" — was part of the 2018 Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial.

The installation represented genomes of 32 diverse human populations, one genome per LED.  The light showed genetic similitude and variation of the four nucleotides in DNA: A, T, G and C.  The nucleotides lit up as red (T), blue (C), green (A), and white (C) using LED lights that blink to depict a journey through the DNA of these 32 genomes. 

Seen through the clock faces, the lights blinked simultaneously in colorful unison until genetic variation in any individual genome was encountered.  When variation was detected, the syncopation of the lights paused briefly, giving the viewer a chance to perceive genomic diversity.

The installation was created by:

  • Yasir H. Ahmed-Braimah, postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology and genetics
  • Josh Strable, postdoctoral fellow in the School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Juan Felipe Beltrán doctoral student in the field of computational biology
  • Kate Greder, doctoral student in the field of fiber science and apparel design

The field of genomics has begun to permeate many aspects of human life: from the potential in personalized medicine to the promises of a deeper personal history through ancestry analysis. Genomic studies inform our understanding of migration, conservation, race, and disease.  As a stable and yet dynamic medium, DNA is a template for natural selection (a process that acts over millions of years) or can be edited using CRISPR/Cas9 (a process acting in a single generation). 

By (de)coding the human genome through LED lights, the project aimed to illuminate the persistence of the genome as the ultimate archival material, and is an indication, in part, to the history of human migratory passage, according to the students.  The project was an experiment to perceive the scale, unison and variation of the core human blueprint.