The discovery of DNA was arguably the most significant breakthrough of modern science. From DNA fingerprinting to personalised genomes the understanding that we can be “read” through our DNA has made it both a potent and challenging symbol of the power of biomedicine. What is less visible is how DNA has become a powerful laboratory tool, a common currency of the bench experiments and the means through which new insights into biology are forged.
For the scientists who study brain development, whose work and whose collaboration are core to this exhibition, the impact of DNA is hence both commonplace and profound. For the majority there is not a single day when DNA is not read, contemplated, manufactured, chopped up and put to use in experiments. A walk through the offices in the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology reveals screen after screen lit up by the multi-coloured blocks of letters the make DNA sequence. The profusion of PCR machines, gel tanks, pipettes and centrifuges that crowd onto lab benches are the tools for handling, measuring and making DNA. Under the microscope, the cellular world of the brain is lit up using DNA hybrids incorporating the sequences from corals and jellyfish. Our scientific lives are lived through DNA and its application. DNA has become the everyday, universal tool by which the brain is explored and is the perfect demonstration of how a single scientific discovery can fundamentally change the way that we see the world.
The catalyst for this exhibition was the urgent desire to record the science spaces in which so many science careers had been forged in the post-war years before they disappeared. The imminent redevelopment of the Strand campus quad also spelt that end for the labs in which Gosling, Wilkins, Franklin and their colleagues worked. Anyone who has spent time in the corridors of this extraordinary warren and talked with its current residents will know that the rooms hold stories and traces that are too important to let slip away. This need was compounded by an extraordinary collision of anniversaries: 100 years of the Medical Research Council, 60 years since the publication of DNA structure and 100 years (almost) since the advent of x-ray crystallography. Added to this, we were lucky enough to encounter three artists with a passion to explore the working lives of science and scientists. All these factors converged onto a project idea that we hoped might (just) be able to bring Photo51 to life through the reflection on the spectacular imagery and experiments that neuroscience performs every day as a consequence of this single picture. Science and art are sometime uneasy companions – it is a field of exploration that is work-in-progress: imperfect and exciting. This exhibition is a product of this unusual dynamic. We hope you sense the excitement, tolerate its imperfections, but most of all pause to reflect on the explosion of knowledge production that Photo51 sparked into life.
Tuesday 25 June – Saturday 27 July, Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College London Strand Campus
Free public events and scientific experiments will accompany the collections, ensuring that this acquaintance with the 20th century’s greatest discovery will be a hands on, interactive journey. Visitors will discover the changing fabric of the laboratory and the research it contains and shapes, through the remarkable lens of DNA.
Visit Photo 51 From DNA to the Brain Here