DNA Day experts answer your questions about geneticists and their work

CurioCity
20 April 2012

Above: Image © Public Domain, Public Domain Photos

What is the coolest art/dna related project you've done?

Right now I am working with a painter to do a pixelated portrait of me (will be 1500 squares to make up my face) and he is using my Pax 6 gene which has about 1500 bases. Pax 6 is one of the 4 main genes involved in face formation, so i think that my pixelated face will be made up of these letters. Another project I did, was took all of my friends names and translated them into DNA sequence (using amino acid one letter codes, and working back to DNA)... Then i took all of their names that were represented in DNA and formed the skyline of toronto. I am also running around Toronto with t-shirts that I bought from American Apparel (each T-shirt as a T, or an A, or C, or G) on them. I go into different neighbourhoods in Toronto and I ask people to put the t-shirts on and then I take a picture of them, I then put all these pictures together into genes and work with students to teach them about what these genes are using bioinformatics databases. They look at the pictures, determine the letter codes and then use BLAST to determine what gene it is..

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Can art be used to explain genetics or even raise the level of discussion about genetics issues?

Yes art can be used to discuss genetics for example when looking at chromosome abnormalites, we can paint our chromosomes in a way such that each chromosome is a different colour. I use old lite brites, to illustrate how pieces of different chromosomes can move to other chromosomes and can cause genetic diseases representation, that is you bind a fluroescent dye to the chromosome and then monitor it with a microscope with special cameras.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Are there any websites online where we can see your art?

You can check out our why genomics website where there will be some http://www.whygenomics.ca/. I have some cool projects just coming up that will be posted. http://www.whygenomics.ca/blog/post/39/My-oblogotory. Here is a link to a blog I did on how to win a PCR machine from me (I have three used PCR machines in my office).

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Not strictly a genetics question but I know you're heavily into art. Why art as part of your outreach efforts?

Well I do converge ART with SCIENCE for many reasons. One of them is that if I were to say to my friends I was going to educate them about genetics and genomics and only used scientific graphs and terminology they would fall asleep, so I use ART to keep them interested. I especially like getting young students to explain science to me using ART, because if you have to explain something using something other than words, you really have to understand the basic principals! Besides ART looks better than a GRAPH to me and my friends. I also use it because ART is medium the general population is more comfortable with. My whole living space/loft is an ART PROJECT, I have my DNA sequence etched out of my windows and the number of people that knock on my door and ask if this is a store, gives me the ability to do scientific outreach to people that are very rarely engaged in SCIENCE. So I catch them in my ART TRAP. LOL.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

What is your greatest contribution to the field of genetics?

A lot of the work from my lab has to do with understanding genetic complexity - how complicated is the genetic world around us? We've done some nice work showing how crucial environment and what we call "genetic background" are to genetics and biology. Genetic background is essentially all the other genes in the genome that you aren't studying. The contribution of this genetic background, and environment, is why it is so hard to predict biology from genotypes at single genes. Overall, this work is helping us understand fundamental issues in the genetics of individuality. Why do two individuals with the same genotype for a gene we know is involved with cancer progression of drug response respond to a drug differently? Often the answer is genetic background.

- Answer provided by Dr. Thomas Merritt

What area of genetics do you find most interesting?

What area do I find most interesting? The influence of the genome on our behavior - this is much more subtle than some genetic effects, but, I think, fascinating.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

What sort of projects are you currently working on, and what are they going to prove/find out?

We have an apple orchard with over 1000 different varieties of apples. We are sequencing all of their genomes and measuring them for all kinds of interesting traits (e.g. sugar, acidity, flowering time, disease resistance). We will then link the DNA sequences to the traits and figure out how these traits are genetically controlled. With this information, we can then breed new varieties more efficiently using marker-assisted breeding. This involves selecting the best plants at the seedling stage using DNA information, rather than growing them up to become mature trees. You can learn more here: www.cultivatingdiversity.org

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

What is the coolest advance in genetics right now in your opinion?

DNA barcoding - it is democratizing access to the world's biodiversity information, allowing people to know the species identity of biomaterials that cannot be identified using traditional means. This technique is also helping us to recognize cryptic species that have been overlooked by traditional approaches and has many applications, like gut content analysis, which helps us understand food webs, etc.

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

What made you want to become a geneticist?

I'm curious about the world around me - we all are, especially scientists. Genetics was the thing that helped me start to understand the complexity of biology. Genetics is incredibly complicated - but is beginning to give us answers on what makes us, us.

- Answer provided by Dr. Thomas Merritt

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