ENCODE: The dance of DNA

On 6 September 2012, the DNA discovery was represented in an aerial silk dance at the Science Museum to launch the new display in the Who Am I? gallery. Ewan Birney, Associate Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute explains why this art form was chosen to convey it.

On 6 September 2012, a dance created to convey the new insights uncovered by ENCODE was unveiled at the Science Museum. Three key steps in genetic switch flipping were represented by coils, loops and straight lines.

The four-minute performance was co-created by the contemporary science department, epigenetics experts from the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements research project, and aerialist Michele Laine of Viva Aerial Dance.

Video credit: Nature Publishing Group.

Ewan Birney, Associate Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, explains more about the discovery, and why dance was a fitting medium to convey it.

What has ENCODE uncovered about my DNA?
We’ve always known there’s another set of controls in your DNA that says this gene should be on and that gene should be off. What ENCODE has uncovered is the control points, or switches, that are switching your genes on and off.

There are way, way more switches than we ever thought. We've gone from thinking "Oh, there might be some switches there," to "Oh my god, the room is covered in switches! I've never seen more switches in my life! Do you really need this many? Why do you need this many?"

Ewan Birney, Associate Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute

Why were the switches hard to find?
Looking at DNA is a little bit like getting the world's best book, like War and Peace, but in Russian when you don't know any Russian at all. It's very long, heavy, and hard to understand.

So you decided to explain it through dance?
When this idea came along, I did think to myself "I can’t believe I’m seriously considering this". The cynic in me said "this is crazy". But there is something very loopy and silky about DNA. So it’s not as bonkers as you think.

What science can we see in the dance?
The loops, what we call DNA 'breathing', are key. Your switches are sometimes a long distance from the genes they switch on. We think your DNA loops over and over when 'deciding' whether or not to turn on a gene. You'd imagine it would end up in a mess with all these long loops in a small space. But somehow, the cell knows to how keep this all relatively smooth and knot-free.

The two things we were very picky about [when creating the dance] are that DNA is a right-handed, anti-parallel helix. That means it twists clockwise and that the DNA code reads up on one side and down the other. It really winds scientists up if you get that wrong.

Ewan Birney and a choreographer decide how best to convey the new DNA discovery as a dance

How does this relate to things like disease?
Imagine the loops form when your body is deciding how to react to an infection. The switch has got to be absolutely tuned just right so that if you get the infection, it switches the relevant genes on, to make antibodies, for example. But if it switches them on too often, you start getting an autoimmune disease like Crohn's disease, where the body attacks itself. So too sensitive is bad, and not sensitive enough is also bad. It's got to be just right.

Find out more about the discovery on Nature.com