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Art Exhibit in Ticknor Mimics DNA Patterns

By Chana R. Schoenberger

Passersby who stopped to stare at the white picket fences which mysteriously appeared in the Yard last night were probably unaware that the fences actually spell out a message in DNA code.

The fences dotting the south end of the Yard are part of "The Riddle of Life," an exhibition in Boylston Hall's Ticknor Lounge that features interpretations of a message in DNA triplets.

The exhibition, which features the work of MIT lecturer and artist Joe Davis in collaboration with more than a dozen other artists, centers on a message biologist Max Delbruck sent to Nobel Prize laureate George W. Beadle at the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm in 1958.

Delbruck's original message, a ladder of red, blue, yellow and green toothpicks which can be read like the DNA code, is reproduced in Davis' exhibit.

The color-coded message, which is repeated throughout the exhibit, represents the mythical riddle of the ancient Egyptian sphinx: "I am the riddle of life. Know me and you will know yourself."

"We're celebrating the riddle of life," said Al L. Wunderlich, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design who re-created the DNA code using photo-sensitive pigments for the exhibit.

"This has a historical basis," Wunderlich said. "We're trying to move outward by interpreting the code in a lot of different ways."

The show will formally open tomorrow with a gallery reception at 5 p.m. and will run until November 24, according to Jennifer Lapierre, coordinator of the Ticknor gallery space.

"The exhibit combines science and art, which doesn't happen very much," Lapierre said. "It brings science and art together in a way that both scientists and artists can appreciate."

Davis said the idea for the exhibit first occurred to him in 1987, when he read a footnote about the toothpick message in a book by Beadle.

"It's such a poetic problem and such a poetic molecule that it inspired me," Davis said.

As part of the exhibit, living bacteria with the riddle encoded in their DNA will be on display.

"This is the first time recombinant organisms have been exhibited in a space accessible to the public," said Davis, who described himself as a "genetic artist."

Davis said he has previously coded the Biblical "Book of Genesis" and other messages in DNA molecules.

Other representations displayed in the exhibit include a computer-generated photo of buildings in Cambridge in which the number of stories in each building corresponds to a letter in the code; ladders with a coded number on each rung; color-coded magnets; and the fences in the yard, with a coded animal stenciled on each picket

"It's such a poetic problem and such a poetic molecule that it inspired me," Davis said.

As part of the exhibit, living bacteria with the riddle encoded in their DNA will be on display.

"This is the first time recombinant organisms have been exhibited in a space accessible to the public," said Davis, who described himself as a "genetic artist."

Davis said he has previously coded the Biblical "Book of Genesis" and other messages in DNA molecules.

Other representations displayed in the exhibit include a computer-generated photo of buildings in Cambridge in which the number of stories in each building corresponds to a letter in the code; ladders with a coded number on each rung; color-coded magnets; and the fences in the yard, with a coded animal stenciled on each picket

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