What is Chromos?

Researchers from the Institute, Dr Csilla Varnai, a post-doctoral researcher in the Fraser Lab and Group Leader Dr Mikhail Spivakov have been working with musician and sound producer Max Cooper and visual artist and mathematician Andy Lomas, to produce an emotive new way to experience the complexity and elegance of DNA organisation.

Chromos takes data and inspiration from Csilla’s work creating computer models to study the physical arrangement of DNA inside cells. Her goal is to understand the importance of organising the genetic information recorded in DNA and the effect that has on living cells. Max has created two music tracks ‘Chromos’ and ‘Coils of Living Synthesis’ based on the research. Andy devised a visual complement to the Chromos track and a Virtual Reality (VR) experience which allows people to climb inside the data. The music has been released online and the videos can be found here.

Where can I see Chromos?

The VR experience has been to the Cambridge Science Festival 2017 and London Science Museum Lates. It is part of the Open Codes exhibit at ZKM-Karlsruhe, the Centre for Art and Media in Germany until January 2019. Chromos will also be coming to Berlin, Germany and Oeiras, Portugal later in 2018.

  • Open Codes, ZKM-Karlsruhe, Germany - 20th October 2017 to 5th August 2018

Get Chromos

Music Download


What am I seeing in Chromos VR?

We often see DNA inside cells represented as little ‘X’-shaped chromosomes arranged in neat little lines, with plenty of space between one chromosome and the next. Yet with more than two metres of DNA crammed into each cell nucleus – a space less than 100th the size of a grain of sand – nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the 46 chromosomes in a human cell spend most of their time as part of a tangled mass of DNA that most closely resembles a ball of wool.

Whilst this may look chaotic, the genes in a cell are highly organised and work like Dr Varnai’s has helped to reveal that the location of a gene inside a cell, as well as its position in space relative to other genes, can drastically change how a gene behaves. This research uses experimental techniques that can reveal which genes are close together in space. Using computers, this information can be converted into a virtual three-dimensional landscape showing the location of all the genes inside a single cell.

Recreating the arrangement of DNA in just one cell is a phenomenal task, requiring as many as 100,000 pieces of information. Starting with several straight pieces of DNA, the computer uses information about which genes are close together to fold the DNA into the correct shape. The end product is a simulated cell nucleus based directly on unique information from one real cell.

This virtual process of folding DNA strands is what inspired the creation of Max Cooper’s music. His artistic expression follows the path of Dr Varnai’s computer algorithms culminating in an arrangement that mirrors the true scientific data.

You can download the presentation which accompanies the VR Experience here (pdf)

The science behind Chromos

Our genes are stored on long strands of DNA. In fact, each human cell contains around two metres of it split into 46 pieces of DNA called chromosomes. All of this needs to fit into the nucleus of a cell, less than 1/100th of a millimetre across. While the issue of how the DNA fits into the nucleus is relatively well studied, our scientists want to know what effect this has on the genes themselves. In order for different types of cell to function and look different, some genes need to be turned on and others need to be turned off. It seems that moving genes about inside the cell can affect how active certain genes are.

The first results of this research were published in the journal Nature in July 2017 in collaboration with researchers at the Weizmann Institute, Israel. The study analysed DNA in over 4000 cells and showed that the organisation is ever changing as cells respond to their changing environment and balance the activity of thousands of genes. The experimental work was carried out by Dr Takashi Nagano using a technique developed at the Babraham Institute called single-cell Hi-C.