Chromosome structure inspires intricate works of art

>May 29, 2019

Chromosome structure inspires intricate works of art

A collaboration between a Virginia Tech entomology professor, art professor, and computer science professor working in biophysics has resulted in the creation of stunning works of art that can help researchers and the public better understand the function of DNA and chromosomes in many important cellular processes.

Fueled by arts integration, this work is made possible by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), which supports Virginia Tech students and faculty working at the intersection of science, engineering, art, and design to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Chromatin is a substance that makes up chromosomes and is responsible for packing several feet of DNA inside a nucleus that is only a few micrometers in size, all while protecting the DNA’s structure and sequence. The three-dimensional organization of chromatin has been found to play a pivotal role in many key cellular processes, including DNA replication, repair, and transcription, and can also signal cancer progression and other pathologies.

With so much DNA packed into such a small space, the sheer density makes it difficult for researchers to create computational models using current standard visualization tools that detail the DNA hierarchy. New tools and concepts, aided by powerful computation, are needed to create interactive, information-rich visualizations, which will help researchers better understand the complexities and function of DNA and chromosomes.

“A visual representation of chromatin in a computational model is important for a better understanding of how DNA is organized and functioning inside a cell nucleus. Computational models make it possible to focus on visualization of the most relevant information within a highly complex chromatin organization,” said researcher Igor Sharakhov, an entomology professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “For example, we may choose to visualize how interaction between chromosome domains is associated with changes in gene expression. Also, a chromatin structural hierarchy can be revealed within the same visualization tool, while different experimental methods are necessary to study each of these structural levels.”

Sharakhov and Alexey Onufriev, professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, are using experimental data along with computational models of chromosome organization in fruit flies and mosquitoes to create a prototype tool that provides visualizations of the chromatin on a variety of scales, revealing a fractal architecture filled with complex patterns.

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