A 17th-Century Stanchi Painting Reveals the Rapid Change in Watermelons through Selective Breeding [Updated]
Old master work paintings are frequently cited for their depiction of historical events, documentation of culture, or portraiture of significant people, but there’s one lesser known use of some paintings for those with a keen eye: biology. One such instance is this Renaissance still life of various fruits on a table by Giovanni Stanchi painted sometime in the 1600s that shows a nearly unrecognizable watermelon before it was selectively bred for meatier red flesh.
Horticulture professor James Nienhuis at the University of Wisconsin tells Vox that he’s fascinated by old still life paintings that often contain the only documentation of various fruits and vegetables before we transformed them forever into something more desirable for human use. You can read a bit more about the science behind the changes in watermelons over the last 350 years here. (via Kottke)
Update: Greg Cato writes: “The painting depicts a rare outcome of sub-par growing conditions, known as ‘starring.’ It’s perfectly normal, still happens, and is not the result of selective breeding (although it would be cool if it were).” You can see an example here.
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In the realm of genetic anomalies found in living organisms perhaps none is more visually striking than bilateral gynandromorphism, a condition where an animal or insect contains both male and female characteristics, evenly split, right down the middle. While cases have been reported in lobsters, crabs and even in birds, it seems butterflies and moths lucked out with the visual splendor of having both male and female wings as a result of the anomaly. For those interested in the science, here’s a bit from Elise over at IFLScience:
In insects the mechanism is fairly well understood. A fly with XX chromosomes will be a female. However, an embryo that loses a Y chromosome still develops into what looks like an adult male, although it will be sterile. It’s thought that bilateral gynandromorphism occurs when two sperm enter an egg. One of those sperm fuses with the nucleus of the egg and a female insect develops. The other sperm develops without another set of chromosomes within the same egg. Both a male and a female insect develop within the same body.
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Just a few weeks ago we covered the amazing 3D-printed portraits created by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who uses genetic clues from found DNA to determine an estimation of what that person might look like. In this short documentary filmed by TED’s Kari Mulholland, we learn a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes as Dewey-Hagborg utilizes the facilities at Genspace in New York to create each of her DNA portraits.
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You’re walking down a street in Brooklyn, gnawing on a piece of gum that’s past the point of flavorful.. In a hurry, you spit it on the ground without a second thought and continue about your day. Hours later, a mysterious woman arrives, surreptitiously collecting the sticky gum from the sidewalk and dropping it into a clear plastic bag which she then carefully labels. Flash forward a month later: you’re walking through an art gallery, and there, mounted on the wall, is a familiar face staring back at you. Astonishingly (or terrifyingly), it’s a 3D print of your face generated from the DNA you left behind on that random piece of gum that now appears in a petri dish just below the portrait. A few years ago this would have seemed like science fiction, the stuff of films like Gattaca, but to information artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, it’s how she makes her artwork here in 2013.
They say inspiration can strike anywhere. For Dewey-Hagborg, it happened in a therapy session. While staring at a framed print on the wall, she fixated on a tiny crack in the glass into which a small hair had become lodged. As her mind wandered, she imagined who this seemingly insignificant hair belonged to, and, more specifically, what they might look like. After that day, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.
Stranger Visions is the result of her fascinating, if slightly disconcerting, line of questioning and experimentation: 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Dewey-Hagborg worked with a DIY biology lab called Genspace, where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA. Via an interview with the artist:
So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.
I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.
Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.
I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.
The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. So how accurate are the faces created from this genetic experiment? The artist likes to say they have a “family resemblance” and no, unlike the scenario depicted above, a person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet. There are some things such as age which are virtually impossible to determine from DNA alone, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years old.
Dewey-Hagborg will be giving a talk with a pop-up exhibit at Genspace on June 13th, and QF Gallery on Long Island will host a body of her work from June 29th through July 13th. You can follow the artist via her website and also her blog. All imagery courtesy the artist. (via smithsonian)
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