The Human Machine

What’s behind the artwork of our first scientific NFT collection? Most of us live unaware that we are colossal molecular machines of unimaginable nano-complexity. 1,260,000,000,000,000,000,000 moving parts keep each one of us living, thinking, surviving. As many as there are grains of sand on the Earth.

Nine examples from the collection

These parts are your proteins, strings of amino acids intricately folded to form 3D structures of diverse form and function. Your genome, your DNA, contains the instructions on how to build over 20,000 different types. Honed and refined by four billion years of evolution, these structures work together in a constant battle against entropy to keep you alive.

Only in the last century has this reality become clear, and with it a new understanding of medicine and disease. For example, a mutation or change in a DNA sequence can disrupt the shape of its protein. That faulty protein can then start a chain reaction, through interactions with other proteins and systems. A classic example is cystic fibrosis, caused by changes in a gene involved in moving salt and water in and out of cells. In conjunction with infections, this results in the build-up of sticky mucus in the lungs and digestive system. It’s still an active area of research, but if we can fix the gene, we fix the protein and cure the disease.

The NFT for CFTR, the gene involved in Cystic Fibrosis.

For many rare diseases, we still don’t know which genes are not functioning properly. Affordable DNA sequencing technology now means researchers can look for the culprit by sequencing many patients with the same condition and finding which DNA mutations they have in common. This genetic origin is only the first step, we then need to find out what the defective protein should be doing and how to fix it. This means understanding the 3D structure of the protein and how it has changed.

Predicting the structure from the DNA sequence has been an almost impossible problem to solve. The structure can be measured with crystallography, very high-resolution microscopy, but this is slow and expensive, meaning that only a fraction of human proteins have been studied. Earlier this year, in a surprise to many biologists, DeepMind released AlphaFold, a breakthrough AI system that predicts protein structure. AlphaFold has the potential to be a game-changer for scientific discovery and, hopefully, research in common and rare diseases.

Each artwork in our first collection features one of these protein structure predictions for each gene in the human genome. They are coloured according to where in the body they are found and styled by how well studied their genes are. These really are the structures in our bodies, each one an essential cog in our machinery. We hope they convey some of the wonder and strangeness of the reality revealed by science.

For more about the traits in the art see:

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Gene - Scientific Art NFTs

Gene - Scientific Art NFTs


GENE is an experiment at the intersection of art science and technology. We’re creating NFT art that shows the beauty and wonder of science.