Genome quilts

Artist Beverly St. Clair uses quilts to encode genetic information: it's beautiful and comfy!

My idea for genome quilts grew from the juxtaposition of two experiences at Wesleyan University in November 2001. First I viewed an exhibit of work by Anni Albers, an artist I have admired for many years. The show included her serigraphs of triangles arranged in a grid. I was struck by their similarity to quilt patterns. The next day I attended a lecture about the Human Genome Project and was impressed by the beautiful shapes of the proteins illustrated and the interesting patterns made by the microarrays. I realized that I could use a simple quilt block to represent each of the four bases in DNA: cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. A square bisected into a light and dark triangle is rotated in four orientations to resemble the letters C, G, A, and T. These blocks are placed in sequences determined by the base sequence, so one can read the genetic code by looking at the quilt. The color and fabric choices influence the overall design. The quilts are visually pleasing, with their strong colors and seemingly traditional design, but they hide and reveal an entirely other construct of information.
Genome Quilts (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. I am entranced by their stegonographically palimpsestish qualities.

    Its so enjoyable when artsoscientificals find ways of presenting datacepts that reveal new information in patterns and forms.

    How comforting it would be to drift off to sleep curled up beneath a tumor-suppressing gene pattern.

  2. I can see this being useful in some kind of post-human culture where gene-splicing is a folk art and families hand down their particular genetic triumphs through the generations by way of the ancient technology of quilting.

  3. “if the orientation of the blocks encodes the letter, then it will be scrambled when turned upside down.”
    Not if start/stop codons are included.

    Assuming the common start/stops are used, the most common start of AUG would become the “stop” codon UGC, which isn’t actually a stop codon.

    You’d just have to look and see if it’s got the right stops and starts to check if it’s oriented the right way.

  4. Actually, there are four possible orientations, not just “right side up” and “upside-down.” But if you’re encoding genes (as opposed to regulatory sequences, etc.), it should be easy enough to check all four orientations and look for the one with the largest open reading frame (that is, the longest sequence that makes sense as a protein). Or you could make sure your sequence starts with some sort of standard bar code, and check which orientation has said bar code.

  5. the whole thing is silly. Once two quilts were finished and stacked together we would be overrun with quiltlets. Worse than bloody tribbles.

  6. @8: There are really only 2 valid orientations, assuming you stick to normal bed cover sizes, for the same reason you can’t turn a sheet sideways and have it fit on your mattress.

  7. Question: “The blocks are placed in sequence.” Does this mean left-to-right in rows as in reading (Western) text? Or alternating left-to-right with right-to-left, which I think would be better, as it is more similar to an actual unbroken spiral-shaped path.

  8. There are three billion base pairs in human DNA. For a quilt six feet by six feet, that would be two millionths of a square inch in area for each square.

    Get me a microscope and a loooong winter!

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