Project Focus: DNAted

By Makerversity

In the very location where the structure of DNA was first photographed by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling in 1952 – one of the world’s most important scientific photographs, I might add – a sculpture born out of DNA code.

Named so as to demonstrate the now famous helical structure of DNA, ‘DNAted’ was built from unique 3D printed components that were gradually built and assembled, with participation of the public, in the quad of King’s College London. Visitors generated their own unique component which would have their name printed on it. Not only that, but they would also receive a demonstration about the role of DNA and gain understanding of the parallels which have been drawn between its structure and the process devised to create the art installation.

The components were created from a computer generated ‘DNA code’. This DNA string came from combining letters, A, T, C or G to build up a word made of 6-9 letters. The specially-designed programme instantly transformed the string of letters into a three-dimensional form. Based on the selected letters and the resulting forms, the programme also generated instructions for participants should assemble their components.  Each component (each representing mini proteins) would be made from two or three base elements (the amino acids).

Mimicking nature, the collection comprised twenty different base elements (amino acids) which together, form mini proteins.  At the end of each day, all components made by the public would be added the overall sculpture. Over the course of the installation DNAted grew and became visual art.


The installation was commissioned by the Arts & Humanities Research Institute and the Cultural Institute at King’s for the Arts & Humanities Festival. Initial design sessions were led by workshop manager Stu Baker and taken forwards by member Studio INTEGRATE, in collaboration with Brian Sutton, Professor of Molecular Biophysics at King’s College London. Integral team members included: Monica Insuasty, Nassia Inglessis, Zoe Powell.

As the festival came to an end and the installation was packed away, I grabbed Makerversity’s Stu Baker  and Mehran Gharleghi from Studio Integrate for a quick chat about the project.

So, how did Makerversity come to be part of this project?
(SB) Kings wanted to commission a resident of Somerset House to deliver the installation for the festival (an annual event). We pitched along side a number of other companies and we were successful.

The members that you brought in to the team all have a history of collaboration; do you think that is key to an interesting diverse outcome or just common practice in creativity?
I think the more diverse the team, the more interesting the outcome. We had a fantastic combination of skills and experience in the team ranging from architecture, interaction / digital design and fashion and textiles. Each person views the brief differently and brings their own perspective from their respective disciplines, creating a wealth of resource to create something interesting from.

3D printers are being used in the arts, retail and even space, but it’s not always without problems. What do think will be the next innovation in 3D printing that will make them easier to use?
Using the printers themselves is actually quite easy. The common issues I think people face are speed of printing, failure rates and structural issues with the objects that are produced. I think that software could massively improve the structural integrity of the objects with ‘smart supports / fill’ maybe simple stress tests depending on the application. The other issues are hardware based and will be improved with development of tech.

We should start to see desktop SLS machines in the not too distant future which use a better more reliable technology as well as a wider and more advanced group of materials which is very exciting.

What for you was the main success of the project?
Staying true to how DNA works. Communicating that accurately, effectively, keeping the academics from Kings happy, whilst delivering something with creative freedom. I think the team did that well.

Finally, are you working on any interesting projects at the moment?
Yes, I’m helping to setup a Carpentry club  – a not-for-profit public maker space specialising in woodwork which is really cool. We’re also constantly improving MV DIY – I’m drawing up plans to create hands-on classroom in a box that can rolled into schools and get children learning through making.


How did you come to be part of the project?
(Mehran Gharleghi)  There was an open call from Makerversity. As I have been involved with similar topics over the past few years I got excited and responded to the call. After the first meeting I was offered to lead the project. Throughout the process I was put in touch with some academics through Cultural Institute and met Professor Brian Sutton and that’s how we began to explore the project together.

With a subject as incredibly complex as DNA there must have been a variety of directions you could have taken. Was there anything wanted to do that wouldn’t have been possible within the parameters that had been set?
The topic is incredibly complex and at the same time very simple once it’s understood. I got excited about the possibilities of application of this method in creating man-made artefacts within the field of art, design and architecture. I thought if so much diversity and complexity can emerge in natural world from such a simple method, we are able to push a lot of boundaries by thoroughly understanding how it works. 

Visitor participation was essential for the the sculpture to grow, how grand do you think the piece could have grown to had it been left for 6 months?
We grew two sculptures each around 1metre tall in 1.5 weeks. If we consider that in the equation, each sculpture would have grown to 16m if allowed to grow for a longer period. Of course, other factors would have contributed and it wouldn’t have been as simple as that, but it would have been incredibly fun to see it grow to something much larger and much more complex. Hopefully next time!


Would you have altered the process after knowing how the public interacted with it?
The process was quite fine-tuned and simple to understand. But a larger team would have helped us to have a smoother interaction process and therefore to interact with more people. I was always amazed when I saw how excited people got when they glued the pieces together and assembled it on the sculpture. They felt the sculpture belonged to them and took photos with it etc… This wouldn’t have been possible if we automated the entire process. I think this was the edge which made the project more of an public art project!

Are there any limits when using 3D printers to create sculptures?
Every technology has advantages and disadvantages, as well as limitations and possibilities. In fact, 3D printing has a lot of limitations that people don’t know about. I often receive messages from factories that a particular form cannot be printed. Even each material in 3D printing has its own limitations which need to be understood. As an example, if you want to 3D print in ceramic, your object would have be much thicker than printing out of PLA. This means you will have to miss a lot of surface details etc… Printing in metal is great but the printers are still very small. So in short the answer is yes, but often limitations allow artists and designers to create something that is quite interesting….


What other projects are you working on?
I’m currently finalising the last steps for fine-tuning and finishing the RIO collection on which I collaborated with Morgan Furniture. In this project we managed to 3D print the back seat of a chair, which for consumer markets is very different to art or one-off projects. Using 3D printing and an algorithm to design the piece, we managed to create a set of six dining chairs each one slightly different to the other. The material from the back-rest was removed in a way that made the chair more flexible for extra comfort, whilst remaining strong enough to hold a person’s weight. The resulting object resembles the internal structure of boneunder similar stresses… At the moment, 3D printing is the only technology that could produce such a chair.  Please see some photos here and the video here.

Meanwhile I am starting to work on an architectural project in the hospitality sector as well as preparing for MVWorks which is very exciting. I would like to take this idea forward in future projects whenever the opportunity arises.

Thanks again to everyone involved with the project. If you’d like to collaborate with us or our members, you’ll find a full list here.


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Posted By Makerversity