The University of California, San Diego has announced this year’s “Ecce Homology,” an interactive bioart installation to be showcased in Los Angeles at SIGGRAPH 2005. Named after Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, the exhibition aims at exploring human evolution through the genetic homology with genes of the rice plant. From the Ecce Homology:Concept website:
In our physically interactive new media work Ecce Homology we have created a non-photorealistic, dynamic visualization of the similarity between the human and rice genomes. This aesthetic experience allows visitors to discover evolutionary links between genes from a human being and the model organisms used for the scientific study of life.
Computer vision enables visitors to interact using their whole bodies with shimmering pictograms–luminous calligraphic shapes that are novel visualizations of actual protein and DNA information from both human and model organism’s genomes. Each pictogram is either a human gene or a gene from the rice genome that is part of metabolic pathways for the process by which starch is broken down into carbon dioxide with the concomitant capture of free energy as ATP, known collectively as cellular respiration. This process is why humans require oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Therefore, the pictograms are both scientifically accurate visualizations and metaphors for the cycling of energy and the unity of life.
Through slow and gestural whole-body exploration of the pictograms, each visitor performs a scientific experiment looking for evolutionary relationships between the human and model organism genomes. This is the very same experiment conducted by researchers participating in the world-wide genome sequencing projects and is done via web-based servers and interfaces using a web-based tool called “BLAST”. While interacting with the installation, visitors reveal the unseen operation of this fundamental “black box” of bioinformatics, the Basic Local Alignment Sequence Tool (BLAST). Results of visitors’ interactions, which initiate the automated comparisons of the human and rice genomes, are shown through changes in the calligraphic figures.
As the Human Genome Project and other genome sequencing efforts continue worldwide, DNA sequences of unknown function are matched by BLAST searches against a vast array of known sequences in various databases to infer identity and evolutionary relationships. BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) is the foundation of what we know in genomic biology. Almost every life science related research laboratory worldwide uses BLAST, making it the most widely used data-mining tool in history.