Designing with the materials of life
“Science is what you know, art is what you do.” William R. Lethaby’s quote, positioned poignantly within the newly built Lethaby Gallery, sets the scene for Fabrics of Life 2014. This year’s project theme of big data draws inspiration from the recent translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into DNA, an arguably artistic and scientific exercise conducted by Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney in light-hearted fashion. Birney notes that DNA alone could store “all the world’s information within a relatively small room.” Their feat demonstrates the potential of biological material to solve the data storage problem, an increasingly prescient issue in this information age, as data stores continue to balloon.
On Wednesday 22nd January, CSC scientists and speakers from the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Zurich confronted the challenges they face in not only storing vast amounts of scientific data, but in retrieving and processing them too. On hand to help translate these big data issues into design concepts were creative minds from MA Textile Futures (Central Saint Martins, UAL) and the Interactive Architecture Lab RC3 (The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL).
Building on the huge database that is the Human Genome Project, Anne Ferguson-Smith (University of Cambridge) showcased scientific methods that probe how our genome is packaged. With each human cell harbouring some two metres of DNA within the tiny space that is the nucleus, Anne explained how packaging bundles the DNA into chromosomes and helps keep some genes on while others are switched off.
Ueli Grossniklaus (University of Zurich, Switzerland) turned the focus to flora. The ability of plant genomes to accommodate extra chromosomes with ease led him to propose plant cells as an ideal storage solution for digital information encoded in DNA. He feels that, “in the future we may be able to store information in plant seeds since they are extremely durable.” Since seeds can survive up to 2000 years, this seems a suitable option to explore.
Jonathan Chubb (University College London) introduced the social amoeba Dictyostelium explaining how the single-celled organism can exist in both unicellular and multicellular forms. He showed ways to study individual cell signals and reconcile these against group behaviour to uncover basic molecular processes.
The CSC’s Irene Miguel-Aliaga spoke about the extensive population of nerve cells within our digestive tract that act as “another brain.” Since we genetically and morphologically similar, Irene’s team uses information from fruit flies to see how our brains and stomachs communicate. And by trawling huge databases of information about fly biology, she is keen to uncover key players involved in diabetes and obesity.
Aldo Faisal (Imperial College London) captivated students with details of his neurotechnological research. He uses body suits like those used to make the film Avatar, generating masses of data to map body movement with the brain, capturing the so-called ‘language of movement’. By analysing the grammar of this language his team hope to diagnose mental disorders easier and faster then before.
CSC Clinical Research Fellow, Antonio de Marvao, showed how 3D magnetic resonance is revolutionising our understanding of the human heart. He is studying 1500 volunteers, and connecting their genetic and phenotypic characteristics. Each volunteer’s computational 3D model includes multiple measurements of thickness and movement of the heart muscle at 16,000 different points. The data from each volunteer takes up 650 MB – the equivalent of over 2,500 books.
Brainstorming sessions and live science demonstrations followed the talks. The design students have now begun their projects and will deliver a final exhibition at the Lethaby Gallery on 12th February 2014.
Watch the documentary here:
Big Data (2014)