Forests, trees and gene expressions

Four studies of mixing science and nature

This is a rather unusual post for me as it concerns art (Chinese brush painting, to be more precise) and, on top of that, somebody else’s art.

Probably you don’t know it, but the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands (where I currently work) has a new building housing mainly the Department of Language and Genetics headed by Simon Fisher (of FOXP2 fame). Now, that’s a nice thing in itself but it also means that there’s a lot of empty, freshly painted walls waiting for art!

As it happens, Alexandra Dima, who in her daily life is a postdoctoral researcher in Health Psychology at the University of Amsterdam (she does lots of cool and useful stuff with relevance to keeping all of us healthy, mainly involving statistics), is also an artist, lately specializing in Chinese brush painting. Her name might ring a bell as she created the cover of my book An introduction to genetics for language scientists, and this is how she was invited to also create art for the new building.

The challenge was twofold: not only to create aesthetically pleasing paintings that fit well with the new building’s (internal and external) environment, but to create something that speaks to the research and the people that work there. So, this is how it started…

The final result is displayed on the second floor and looks like this:

The four scrolls on the second floor’s wall (there are four windows just in front of them, too and, please, ignore me: I’m there just to give an impression of the size).

There are some points worth making. First, the space is quite large (and, therefore, the paintings themselves are also large, at 70cm x 140cm without the frames). Second, just opposite the paintings are four large windows facing roughly south-west (so that there’s plenty of sun in the afternoon) overlooking a large forested park (dominated by deciduous trees such as oak). Third, this is a very interdisciplinary place where we study language, genetics, neurobiology, using all sorts of cool methods ranging from wet-lab-based to statistical. And this is where the paintings start speaking…

The four paintings in all their glory (and high resolution) are below:





I will give here just a few clues, leaving most of the messages and metaphors hidden for you to discover. For example, if you really look at the branches of those trees, do they remind you of something else? Something to do with the brain, the way neurons connect (and talk) to each other?

Are these tree branches or what?

And, really, really, what are those patches of colour behind the trees? Leaves in the autumn? City lights? Or maybe a reference to a much-used way of showing the patterns of gene expression (more generally known as heat maps; for the geeks, this is one way of drawing them in R)? Or maybe they remind you of the patterns one sees in DNA sequencing or even doing PCR?

DNA sequencing (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Wait, that’s not all! There are weird scribblings on the trees! Some look like some sort of old Chinese writing:

Seal script “talk”

Some look like cuneiforms, more precisely Ugaritic from about the 14 century BCE…


… and this one translates to GATCACAGGT, the origin of the so-called Cambridge Reference Sequence (CRS) of the human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).

Some might recognize these


as runes (or the Futhark alphabet, used in Northern Europe on wood, stone and metal), meaning TATAAA, the so-called TATA box, one of the most important promoter sequences (where gene transcription starts and a crucial locus of gene regulation).

But for me the most fascinating are the


Ogham inscriptions, used to write Early (4-6 century CE) and Old (6-9 CE) Irish on wood and stone, with their long and serpentine form; this one here reads also GATCACAGGT.

There’s more on those trees for you to enjoy and I won’t spoil the surprises here (but I do at the end so please skip that if you want to discover them yourself!), but there are more inscriptions in these alphabets but also in Etruscan (8-7 century BCE in Italy) and Phoenician (about 11 century BCE in the Mediterranean), and more messages with particular relevance to genetics (hint: one concerns FOXP2, another the first genome to be completely sequenced, but there’s more).

The technique (“spontaneous style” or xieyi 寫意) is very demanding, particularly for such large paintings forming a coherent set, because there’s no fixing of errors: once committed to paper a stroke stays there! So, if errors happen they must be either integrated or everything starts anew. The paper is also very thin and absorbent, which means that mounting such large paintings was very difficult and risky. Alexandra used as original materials (paper, ink, brushes) as possible and her technique and style is also faithful to the traditional masters.

The small red square with Chinese seal script is Alexandra’s artist seal:


Thus, Alexandra’s paintings on the second floor try to speak to genetics and language using Chinese brush painting conventions and style, but the paintings would not look so good without the skill and dedication of Jos Witsiers of Peter van Ginkel in Arnhem who not only framed the paintings but helped in choosing the right colours, glass and frames.

Finally, Peter Sansom created three very beautiful paintings (completely different style but very warm and peaceful) for the first floor of the same building. Here is the summary of the unveiling giving more details about the event itself.

Spoiler alert!!!

Here is the list of all the scripts used in Alexandra’s paintings and of the genetic (or otherwise) messages they represent:

The scripts were mostly used for carving on wood or stone, as their shapes fit best idea of inscriptions on trees; they are: Ogham, Futhark (runes), Ugaritic (cuneiforms), Etruscan, Phoenician, and four Chinese seal script inscriptions: 問 (“ask”), 士 (“scholar”), 說 (“talk”), 基因 (“gene”), and 明白 (“understand”).

The genetic messages are: TATAAA (the “TATA box“), AUG/TAC (the START codon where transcription begins), CAAATT (FOXP2 core binding sequence), ATTA (Homeo-domain binding sequence), GATCACAGGT (reference human mtDNA sequence origin), and GAGTTTTATC GCTTCCATGA (the origin of the ΦX174 genome, the first ever genome to be completely sequenced in 1977).

Disclaimer: I have been involved in designing these paintings in an advisory capacity and I am actually married to Alex 🙂



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