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On May 6, the typical stylish New York City gallery crowd mingled and gawked at art lining the walls of the Betaworks studio gallery in the city’s Meatpacking District for The MSSNG Lab, an invitation and one-night-only art installation and auction. What separated this from similar art events in the city? Well, for one thing, biochemist and fine art photographer Linden Gledhill was stationed center stage on a platform staring down a microscope as a screen projection on the wall showed in real-time the microscopic images he was analyzing.
Gledhill was looking at the crystallization of liquid DNA molecules. This crystallization results from outfitting the microscope with a polarized light system. As the DNA is dissolved in a high-concentration water-based solution, it is placed on a glass slide with a cover slip. Over the course of several hours, the water solution evaporates and the slide begins to fill with beautiful crystal formations. With a special high-definition camera, Gledhill captures a time-lapse of the crystallization process.
Exactly why was Gledhill doing this? Well, it is to raise awareness – and continued funding – for autism research. Gledhill’s exhibition was a fundraiser for MSSNG, a project that launched in late 2014 to support the development of a database that aims to compile the sequencing of 10,000 whole genomes of people who are on the autism spectrum, as well as their family members who are either unaffected or undiagnosed with autism.
The project marks a collaboration between Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization, Google, and the Centre for Applied Genomics. The database, the world’s largest, is an unprecedented attempt at trying to shed a clearer light on an often misunderstood disorder – the genomic sequencing being aggregated is made available to researchers as an open source database accessible through the Google Cloud.
“The genomic information available through this project —a genome data file—is really the digital representation for a genetic blueprint for an individual. Changes in that blueprint for an individual are what cause disease and various other issues for an individual,” Autism Speaks’s Chief Science Officer Rob Ring told FoxNews.com. “Autism is something that we still really don’t know much about. We don’t know what causes autism, for instance. All roads lead to genomes. Genetics are having a really key role in autism research and this project will help us understand why one brother has autism and the other does not, for example.”
Ring said the groundwork for this kind of genomics research has been building steadily over the past few decades. Ring added that what was once science fiction has become reality — from the Human Genome Project, which carried out the first-ever complete mapping of all the genes of the human genome, to MSSNG, we are now in a genomics-focused era of medical research that can offer a clearer understanding of complex disorders like autism or diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Given that autism manifests itself in such a variable way — the spectrum itself is pretty vast — Ring suggested that the MSSNG data could give doctors and researchers the opportunity to offer more specialized diagnoses and treatment.
“The genetic code differs greatly from person to person. The immediate payout for the MSSNG program is really giving us all a great understanding of autism itself,” Ring said.
The project’s goals are ambitious. By March 2015, 2,000 genomes had been sequenced and uploaded to the Google Cloud. MSSNG hopes to reach its goal of 10,000 genomes by the first quarter of 2016.
What is a way to continue to raise awareness of this campaign? The answer is slightly unexpected – art. Gledhill, whose work has been part of campaigns from corporate clients like Canon to musicians such as British composer and producer Ryan Teague, was brought into the fold by advertising agency BBDO, which has a long history with Autism Speaks. The agency had seen some of Gledhill’s other crystal microscopy work.
Gledhill said that they needed someone who “could think through the chemistry and the crystallization process,” and added that “it’s that combination of being able to do the science and chemistry in combination with the artistic photographic side” of the project that made him the ideal fit.
The artist has been creating 10,000 unique DNA posters, which are available to purchase, that could be used to help MSSNG reach its sequencing goal. At the one-time exhibition, audio and video displays were also on view. As viewers looked at colorful, undulating DNA crystal projections on one wall, they could listen to audio of people discussing how they and their families have been affected by autism.
“We have a great team that works with Autism Speaks. I think the main goal of this, from an advertising perspective, is how to get people excited about this,” Matt MacDonald, BBDO’s executive creative director, told FoxNews.com. “We use the analogy of the moonshot – how did we get the public excited about space? How do we get to the language and imagery that will get people excited about what we are trying to achieve.”
MacDonald suggested that a clear idea was to pinpoint “how DNA is beautiful.”
For Gledhill, it is important to make genetics accessible for people whose only real relationship to DNA might be from a school textbook.
“People visualize DNA in the classical helix structure in the way that Watson and Crick discovered it,” he said. “When you put DNA into this solution, though, it starts to organize itself in a bulk liquid crystal. It’s not quite a liquid or a solid, it transitions through phases. That’s what people are seeing through these images. Being able to visualize it in an attractive way is pretty cool.”
Making DNA cool was part of the inspiration for the team at MediaMonks, the international creative digital production company that worked on the MSSNG campaign’s interactive web elements. The company worked with BBDO to create an interactive web platform where people could purchase the 10,000 DNA posters as well as explore the art up-close-and-personal for themselves online. Visitors to the site can build their own DNA crystals, which makes Gledhill’s process more accessible to a wider audience.
“When we heard about this whole campaign we just thought it was a cool idea, just very unique,” MediaMonks Executive Creative Director and Partner Jouke Vuurmans told FoxNews.com at the gallery event. “We especially liked achieving the goal of creating this all together. It was a really nice way for the art work to come alive.”
Brook Downton, an executive producer at MediaMonks, added that it was “incredible” to see all the disparate gears working behind the MSSNG project – from the marketing and digital to the art and scientific research worlds – all come together at the exhibition.
“Up to tonight everything had been quite separate, now it comes together. That’s really what the website does,” Downton said. “The website brings it all together. It’s meaningful for us to be part of this project, to work on something that can bring tangible results to people.”
For MacDonald, beyond the art and the early success of the campaign is the overarching goal of providing “relief for people and relief for families with autism.”
“There is an urgency to this project to raise the funds to have as much genetic information in the cloud as possible,” he said. “For people who have autism, there is this desire to want to know ‘why’ and often they hit this empty space that doesn’t make sense. The more people are aware of this project the sooner we will get to real answers.”
Gledhill added that sometimes the answers to difficult problems can be made clearer when two worlds as unique as art and science collide. One informs the other.
“Not too many people see this process outside a laboratory,” Gledhill said. “That for me is the beauty in what I do. It’s about probing things that are difficult to conceive at times and see them in a different way.”