It hardly resembles the grand design of the famous double helix that I’ve grown to adore over the last 18 months of researching my project The Spit of Me. Yet this is indeed the first ever photographic representation of the molecule that codes the blueprint for life. Even then, we are told that this is not actually a photograph but a rendering of it.
We are so familiar with the beauty of the double helix structure, first depicted by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, that it seems incredible that it was never photographed before 2012.
You can just about discern the helical nature of it in the blur, the tightly coiled double strands. To me, it looks like the bellows on one of those toy accordions I used to play with when I was a kid.
Enzo di Fabrizio, a researcher at the University of Genoa in Italy, has developed a technique that pulls strands of DNA through two miniscule silicone pillars, then photographs them via an electron microscope. It isn’t foolproof though – the electrons emitted by the microscope are too powerful to photograph a single strand without destroying it. But Fabrizio is confident that its only a matter of not too much time before improved techniques in imaging can allow scientists to observe DNA directly.
The very title of this website, The Spit of Me, is predicated on the very efficient handing down of genetic information from parent to child by the DNA molecule. Ever since I was a little girl, I was told that I look almost exactly like my father, right down to shape of my hands and even my fingernails. Relatives told me that it was like he spat and I came out. I am not just interested in the way genes are almost identical at molecular level. Give or take a few ‘mutations/mistakes’ here and there that might give a mother blue eyes and the daughter green. I am also extremely interested in the way a person’s appearance can belie what is actually going on beneath the skin given their genetic make up.
It’s well and good to say that someone has their mother’s deep set eyes or you’ve got your father’s gummy smile. It’s quite another to visually animate the power of genes to show how uncanny a family resemblance can be. To demonstrate the precise copy and paste function of DNA in replication, how a set of chromosomes from each parent recombines to form the child. Photographer Ulric Collette sets out to show exactly that in these spliced portraits of two people who are directly related to each other like sister and brother, father and daughter etc. etc. And it all began by accident because he was working on a separate time lapse project that happened to require his splicing a portrait of his son with his own.
I find it incredible that despite the vagaries of such things as age, hair distribution, style and colour, gender, eye colour and body fat, in general the skin tones, shape of skulls, noses and lips of these people related to each tend to be almost exact copies of each other. Where one might have expected something verging on Frankenstein’s monster, there is harmony and symmetry of purpose in the way that nature has dictated these people should look. DNA…what an efficient, beautiful little machine it is! There are a lot more portraits to see on http://genetic.ulriccollette.com/
One small niggle though – the photographer missed a trick by not showing a greater diversity of races. That would have made it even more interesting.