Science of the Unseen Banner

Christian Stolte

Paint my DNA

We use the visible differences between individuals to make quick judgements and group assignments: he is blond, she is Asian, they are short, etc. What we can’t see is what causes the differences – the genetic makeup of each person, and the differences between one genome and another.

For this project, I wanted find a concise form that makes genomic data visible and shows identifiable differences between genomic signatures, without getting hung up on details. In order to reduce the complexity and size of the datasets, I chose to explore if a coarse summary of genetic data reducing a million points of difference down to twenty totals per chromosome would still preserve the individuality of each genome. As it turns out, the answer is yes.

The starting point are raw data files from the genetic service 23andMe, extracted from my own DNA and that of a couple of friends. Each file contains almost a million two-letter genomic position readouts. For each chromosome, counts of the observed letter combinations are translated to overlapping shapes of corresponding size, orientation, and color. The resulting artwork is different for each person.

Media used: JavaScript, using the D3.js library.


Christian Stolte is an artist, designer, and coder from Germany. In 2007, he was hired by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to design websites for genomic data and has been hooked on science ever since. In the years following, he learned about bioinformatics and biology in order to design user interfaces and build tools for biologists. Since 2011, he has been involved as co-organizer for a conference series ├ČVIZBI – Visualizing Biological Data├« (http://vizbi.org). During his time at CSIRO in Sydney, Australia (2012 – 2015), he worked on web-based software for protein structure exploration (http://aquaria.ws) and a variety of bioinformatics projects which were published in Cell and Nature Methods. He also art-directed award-winning animations about biology and organized events for the Vivid Sydney festival, bridging art and science. He currently works as a data visualization specialist at the New York Genome Center.

http://studio.christianstolte.com