I Know What I Like


I guess most of us at some time or other will have stood gazing at a painting for a while before muttering ‘Wow, that’s awesome’ or words to that effect if we’re not into the modern argot. Some combination of subject, style and colour has turned our crank and left us thinking we wouldn’t mind having that on our kitchen wall.

Given the thousands of years of man’s daubing and the zillions of forms that have appeared from pre-historic cave paintings through Eastern painting, the Italian Renaissance, Impressionism, Dadaism and the rest to Pop Art, it’s amazing that everyone isn’t a fanatic for one sort or another. The sane might say the field’s given itself a bad name by passing off tins of baked beans, stuff thrown at a canvas and unmade beds as ‘art’ but, even so, it seems odd that it remains a minority obsession.

Can science help?

Science is wonderful, as we all know, but the notion that it might arouse the collective artistic lust seems fanciful. Nevertheless, unnoticed by practically everyone, our vast smorgasbord of smears has been surreptitiously joined over the last 30 years by a new form: an ever-expanding avalanche of pics created by biologists trying to pin down how animals work at the molecular level. The crucial technical development has been the application of fluorescence in the life sciences: flags that glow when you shine light on them and can be stuck on to molecules to track what goes on in cells and tissues. The pioneer of this field was Roger Tsien who died, aged 64, in 2016.

Because this has totally transformed cell biology we’ve run into lots of brilliant examples in these pages — recently in Shifting the Genetic Furniture, in Caveat Emptor and John Sulston: Biologist, Geneticist and Guardian of our Heritage and in the use of red and green tags for picking out individual types of proteins that mark mini-cells within cells in Lorenzo’s Oil for Nervous Breakdowns.

To mark the New Year this piece looks at science from a different angle by focussing not on the scientific story but on the beauty that has become a by-product of this pursuit of knowledge.

Step this way: entrance free

So let’s take a stroll through our science gallery and gaze at just a few, randomly selected works of art.

  1. Cells grown in culture:

This was one of the first experiments in my laboratory using fluorescently labelled antibodies, carried out by a student, Emily Hayes, so long ago that she now has a Ph.D., a husband and two children. The cells are endothelial cells (that line blood vessels). Blue: nuclei; green: F-actin; red: Von Willebrand factor, a protein marker for endothelium.


  1. Two very recent images taken by my colleague Roderik Kortlever of a senescent mouse fibroblast and of mouse breast tissue:







3. Waves of calcium in firing neurons:

One of my fondest memories is helping to do the first experiment that measured the level of calcium within a cell, carried out with my colleague the late Roger Tsien and two other friends. I only grew the cells: Roger had designed and made the molecule, quin2. We didn’t know it at the time but Roger’s wonder molecule was the first of many intracellular ‘reporters.’ Roger shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein with organic chemist Osamu Shimomura and neurobiologist Martin Chalfie.

This wonderful video of a descendant of quin2 in nerve cells was made in Dr. Sakaguchi’s lab at Iowa State University.


4. Calcium wave flooding a fertilized egg: Taro Kaneuchi and colleagues at the Tokyo Metropolitan University:

Click for a time-lapse movie of an egg cell that has been artificially stimulated to show the kind of calcium change that happens at fertilization. In this time-lapse movie the calcium level reaches a maximum signal intensity after about 30 min before gradually decreasing to the basal level.


5. The restless cell (1):

This movie shows how protein filaments in cells can continuously break down and reform – called treadmilling. Visualised in HeLa cells using a green fluorescent protein that sticks to microtubules (tubular polymers made up of the protein tubulin) by HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


6. The restless cell (2):

This movie shows how mitochondria (organelles within the cell) are continuously changing shape and moving within the cell’s interior (cytosol). Red marks the mitochondria; green DNA within the nucleus. HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


7. Cell division:

Pig kidney cells undergoing mitosis. Red marks DNA (nucleus); green is tubulin: HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


8. DNA portrait of Sir John Sulston by Marc Quinn commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery:This image looks a bit drab in the present context but in some ways it’s the most dramatic of all. John Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz for working out the cell lineage of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans (i.e. how it develops from a single, fertilized egg to an adult). He went on to sequence the entire DNA of C. elegans. Published in 1998, it was the first complete genome sequence of an animal — an important proof-of-principle for the Human Genome Project that followed and for which Sulston directed the British contribution at the Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire, England. The project was completed in 2003.

The portrait shows colonies of bacteria in a jelly that, together, carry all Sulston’s DNA. This represents DNA cloning in which DNA fragments, taken up by bacteria after insertion into a circular piece of DNA (a plasmid), are multiplied to give many identical copies for sequencing.


9. “Brainbow” mice by Tamily Weissman at Harvard University:

The science behind this astonishing image builds on the work of Roger Tsien. Mice are genetically engineered to carry three different fluorescent proteins corresponding to the primary colours red, yellow and blue. Within each cell recombination occurs randomly, giving rise to different colours. The principle of mixing primary colours is the same as used in colour televisions.  In this view individual neurons in the brain (specifically a layer of the hippocampus) project their dendrites into the outer layer. Other magnificent pictures can be seen in the Cell Picture Show.

It’s certainly science – but is it art?

A few years ago the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge staged Vermeer’s Women, an exhibition of key works by Johannes Vermeer and over thirty other masterpieces from the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. I tried the experiment of standing in the middle of each room and picking out the one painting that, from a distance, most caught my amateur eye. Funny thing was: not one turned out to be by the eponymous star of the show! Wondrous though Vermeer’s paintings were, the ones that really took my fancy were by Pieter de Hooch, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Nicolaes Maes, guys I’d never heard of.

Which made the point that you don’t need to be a big cheese to make a splash and that in the new Dutch Republic of the 17th century, the most prosperous nation in Europe, there was enough money to keep a small army of splodgers in palettes and paint. Skillful and incredibly patient though these chaps were, they simply used the tools available to paint what they saw in the world before them — as for the most part have artists down the ages.

But hang on! Isn’t that what we’ve just been on about? Scientists applying enormous skill and patience in using the tools they’ve developed to visualize life — to image what Nature lays before them. So the only difference between the considerable army of biological scientists around the world making a new art form and the Old Masters is that the newcomers are unveiling life — as opposed to the immortalizing a rather dopy-looking aristocrat learning to play the virginal or some-such.


Not really. Let’s leave the last word to Roger Tsien. In our final picture there are eight bacterial colonies each expressing a different colour of fluorescent protein arranged to grow as a San Diego beach scene in a Petri dish. It became the logo of Roger’s laboratory.


Dyslexic DNA

Writing in code

Did you notice a few months back that some boffins had written a book in DNA? No, that’s not a typo: what they did was to transcribe a 53,000 word book – plus pictures – into a synthetic DNA sequence. In essence, they re-wrote the book in binary by taking the four bases that make the genetic code of life and setting A and C to equal zero whilst G or T represented one. The result wasn’t without its typos: in the just over five million bits needed there were ten mistakes. So rather better than my touch-typing then. But there was a real commercial point behind this exercise, aside from showing, yet again, the astonishing coding capacity of our genetic material. One gram of DNA (you’ve got 500 grams) can store more than 100 billion DVDs, so not merely is it the ultimate in compacted data but it’s amazingly tough stuff – think of sequencing the woolly mammoth, in the freezer for thousands of years – by comparison with the latest software updates for my computer which usually mean I can’t read files 10 years old. And if I dig out my 20 year old 35 mm slides from the attic, chances are they’ll adorned by fungal growths.

Genetic switches

So DNA’s great for long-term information storage but this was by no means the first attempt to use biological molecules in ways we normally associate with electronic devices. When the code of DNA is ‘read’ to make an intermediate (RNA) from which, in turn, proteins can be made it’s acting as a biological transistor: a switch and amplifier that responds to an input signal. The DNA code ‘reader’ is a molecular machine called RNA polymerase (RNA pol) that moves step-wise along a strand of DNA, adding units one at a time to a growing molecule of RNA, complementary in sequence to the DNA template. This process is called ‘transcription’. In its wake another molecular machine can ‘translate’ the RNA codes into protein. RNA pol therefore ‘flows’ along a strand of DNA rather like a current of electrons through a transistor and, because RNA can makes lots of copies of a protein, the system has built-in amplification. Input control is via proteins that stick to segments of DNA called promoters and ‘switch on’ RNA pol (i.e., an analog input). After that the sequence of DNA itself can, in effect, say either ‘go’ or ‘stop’: short sequence motifs can wave RNA pol through or make it stall. The output signal is the protein made – and if you make green fluorescent protein (GFP) you can shine light on it and measure how much you’ve got from the fluorescence emitted.

Over the last few years a number of such gadgets have been made and inserted into bacterial cells to work as simple digital logic gates. In electronic-speak these have included DNA AND gates (giving a high output only if two inputs are high) and OR gates (a high output if one or both the inputs to the gate are high). They’re genetic transistors, processing signals like the logic gates built from transistors that, in combinations of billions, are the basis of computer memory and microprocessors.

Throwing a DNA switch

Throwing a DNA switch

So what’s new?

For biological gates the problem has been that each needs its own construct (a DNA plasmid) and to make more complicated bits {e.g., EXCLUSIVE OR (XOR) gates (high output only if the inputs are different) or EXCLUSIVE NOR (XNOR) gates (output high only if inputs equal)} lots of constructs are required, each having to be persuaded to enter bacteria and to work in a stable fashion.

Step forward Drew Endy and colleagues from Stanford who, by dint of some very clever molecular biology, have combined multiple logic elements into a single construct – which they call a ‘transcriptor’. The switching capacity of their devices comes from integrases – enzymes made by viruses that infect bacteria – that can invert (flip) short stretches of DNA. These can be designed as switchable ‘go’ or ‘stop’ signals for RNA pol. Back in the 1940s Barbara McClintock, working on maize, discovered that stretches of DNA can be shifted around within the genome – they’re called ‘transposons’ – and integrases do the same thing as the enzymes that switch transposons around. McClintock remains, incidentally, the only lady to win a Nobel Prize for Medicine on her own. The great thing about integrases is that they can be turned on simply by adding the appropriate activator to the medium surrounding the cells.

This remarkable advance means that essentially any kind of gate can be built into a single, synthetically made genetic transistor, regulated by a range of integrases. The potential is somewhat mind-boggling but includes being able to monitor in real time the effects of drugs on the behavior of individual cells.

When John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley (a Brit by origin but really another Stanford man) invented the transistor (they got the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics) they can have had little idea of the impact it would have on mankind. But they really would have been staggered to know that, 60 years on, their successors would be shaping our genetic material to act as semiconductors in living cells.

Anything else?

So, as far as I can see, Drew Endy and his chums have done pretty well everything except build an EOR gate that responds to any input with “Don’t blame me”. But they’re such smart guys I bet they’ve got one of those in the fridge too – it was just that the journal editor lacked a sense of humour and wouldn’t publish it. Science editors have form in this department – recall the tale of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi who, whilst a member of my department back in the 1920s, isolated ascorbic acid (the vitamin that stops you getting scurvy) and, convinced it was a sugar (so it should have the suffix -ose – it’s actually made from glucose by oxidation) but not knowing the exact structure, sent his results to the Biochemical Journal calling it ‘ignose’. When the editor said ignose was silly Albert suggested ‘godnose’, getting a predictable response!



Bonnet, J., Yin, P., Ortiz, M.E., Subsoontorn, P. and Endy, D. (2013). Amplifying Genetic Logic Gates. Science 28 March 2013 / Page 1/ 10.1126/science.1232758http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/recent