How would the late Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, view his genome? I suspect that the artist, who had a flair for painting things in midair as cats and water seemed to hover nearby, would have been fascinated by not only the concept of genomics, but the widespread human view of it.
Consider one of his famous works, The Persistence of Memory (1931). All the iconography oozing from this work can’t be discussed in a few hundred words. So, let’s just home in on the most memorable elements of the painting – the clocks. Dalí once called those clocks the “camembert of time” (camembert is a delectable soft cheese that could theoretically be good as donut filling).
The iconic melting clocks communicate that our perception of time is not solid or concrete; it is fluid and ever changing. However, to many people time will always remain solid because that is how they uncritically perceive it. If I were to bet my camembert-filled donut, I would say Dalí would view his genome as he did time. But many people perceive it as concrete and static: One gene equals one inheritable trait; mutation X causes disease Y. The early work of Gregor Mendel and others may have unwittingly set the stage for this kind of genetic determinism. However, scientists have demonstrated that the genome is vastly more complex, engrained with redundant elements, buffeted by environmental changes, and unable to fully explain our physiological identity at any given moment or across time (Weiss, 2018).
Your genome simply does not paint the complete portrait of you or your health. First, it is only predictive, and only to some relative degree. People harbor mutations that “should” confer horrible outcomes that never materialize due to genomic mysteries or lifestyle choices. It would seem like the mutation is just hitching a ride in the genome. Second, we could all have many different genomes existing throughout the body, not just the one reported in the test results. Third, the DNA could have picked up phantom mutations during sequencing that were not present in the actual sample. Hitchhiking mutations, multi-genomes and phantom mutations – what great subject matter for a Surrealist artist!
Test results from a set of identical twins serve as yet another example of the fluidity of our genetic understanding of ourselves (Argo and Denne, 2019). Although a team of researchers from Yale University deemed the genomes of twin sisters to be identical (99.6% based on raw data), the twins received very different readouts/interpretations from a genetic testing company, perplexing the twins AND the researchers. Different reports from four other genetic testing companies also failed to agree, even for the same individual. Perplexing indeed!
If Salvador Dalí viewed our perception of genetics/genomics the same way as time, how would he represent this in his artwork? Would he have painted melting DNA that seemed to keep dividing to resemble a fractal or genomic reports that morph into different objects? Would there be phantom DNA? Who knows, we could spend years discussing the possibilities. What is certain is that trying to grasp a static understanding of genetics/genomics to define our health will not lead to the precision medicine promise of the right medical treatment at the right time. We need to listen to the voices that are emerging to break the engrained perception that our identity or future resides in our DNA.
Argo, C. and Denne, L. (2019, January 18). Twins get some ‘mystifying’ results when they put 5 DNA ancestry kits to the test. CBC News. Retrieved on January 22, 2019 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/dna-ancestry-kits-twins-marketplace-1.4980976.
Weiss, K. M. (2018). Genetic Pointillism versus Physiological Form. Perspect Biol Med, 61(4), 503-516. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30613033. doi:10.1353/pbm.2018.0060