Building the Artistic Character of Genes & Genomes

This essay is based on a recent talk I gave at the "Seminario Internacional de Narrativas Hipertextuales NH/T" in Montevideo, Uruguay as part of my residence at the Laboratory for Computerized Languages, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of the Republic of Uruguay

Here I explore the concept of genome browser as digital art project in which I take inspiration in creating geometric abstract works developed with code. Genome browsers are bioinformatics tools used by life scientists to access and visualize genome sequence data from species of interest, with genes being represented mainly as sequences of rectangles and lines. The focal point of the work presented here rests on providing an alternative view of the different genetic elements that compose a genome, a view approximated with aesthetic and artistic sensibility as complementation to the scientific approach.

Genome browsers as inspirational artifacts

The visual representation of genes and its genomic context can, in a sense, be considered as digital art projects. Genome browsers provide scientists with a graphical interface to search, retrieve, and analyze genomic sequence and annotation data. They aggregate different types of annotation data together and integrate them into abstract graphical views, conveying a spatial relationship between different pieces of genomic data.

As artist and scientist, I decided to explore the concept of using plant genome browsers as inspirational artifacts to create abstract paintings in digital format.

It is interesting to note that while many artists refer to ‘nature’ as the representational object in their paintings, scientists and artists can refer to genes only in indirect forms, forms derived from experimentation and the graphical interpretation of those experiments, as genes cannot be seen.

In this opportunity, I decided to focus my attention on the genome browser that holds sequence data of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana at The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR) website. I reasoned that as the first plant genome to be sequenced, it provided a clear example of the visual elements utilized by the scientific community at the time to represent genetic elements in graphical format.


For my first artwork, I focused on the genomic context surrounding a particular gene of interest on chromosome 1:


Paying special attention to those features more characteristics such as the scale and position on the chromosome, the tracks holding different sources of annotation data such as gene locus, gene models and cDNAs, I created the following work:

The color palette of the painting relates to the colors from the genome browser’s webpage itself.

For my second artwork, I focused on the syntenic relationship for the chromosomal segment of interest among three plant species: A. thaliana, A. lyrata and P. trichocarpa, respectively.

Source: synteny viewer from TAIR webpage

Paying special emphasis on the visual relationship among segments derived from a common ancestor as rectangles connected by lines I created the following work:

Small red rectangles represent genetic elements from chromosomal segments of A. lyrata and A. thaliana located in the upper and center-left parts of the canvas while the light-violet rectangles at the lower-right part of the canvas represent genes from P. trichocarpa, respectively. Syntenic relationships are represented as white arcs.

GAGAISM: the emergence of a new artistic form

The exploration of my creativity within the space formed at the intersection of abstract art and genomics opens up a concrete opportunity for the development of a new kind of aesthetic philosophy that I decided to coin Arte GAGAISTA, or GAGAISMO in reference to the concepts of Geometric And Genomic AbstractionISM.

In this context, GAGAISMO will encompass those artistic expressions that intend to represent, from a subjective point of view, the genetic basis of nature.

Digital art and information design are two disciplines well positioned to approach GAGAISMO because they share with genomics and bioinformatics a strong computational component.


Wang et al. (2012): A brief introduction to web-based genome browsers. Briefing in Bioinformatics (doi:10.1093/bib/bbs029)

Huala et al. (2001): The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR): a comprehensive database and web-based information retrieval, analysis, and visualization system for a model plant. Nucleic Acids Research (29); 1: p102

The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative (2000): Analysis of the genome sequence of the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Nature (408): p796

Keywords: Martin Calvino; computational abstract art; geometric expressionism; GAGAISMO; ARTE GAGAISTA; gene; genome; Arabidopsis; genome browser; geometric and genomic expressionism