Jalview Abacus

Made as part of an art-science collaboration with Jim Procter and Geoff Barton at the UoD Life Sciences Department, the creators of the Jalview phylogenetics program. It is hand constructed of steel and wood. 

Jalview is used to study and align the genetic codes of different organisms. These alignments can be used to construct phylogenetic trees, which show us where different species diverge from one another. The process of alignment is challenging because over the eons the genomes' change, the development of gaps or insertions mean that one bundle of proteins can be next to each-other in one organism, separate in another, and missing altogether in a third. This creates a puzzle which Jalview is designed to solve, and the fundamental mechanism of Jalview is the sliding and alignment of these proteins to find like bundles of code.

The Abacus represents this process, on a much smaller scale. The rows are each separate organisms, and the columns can be lined up to solve the puzzle. Interestingly, if one were to construct one of these long enough, it could be used as an actual tool to perform the same basic process as the computer, like a mathematical abacus is to a calculator. Once the alignment is found, the other side has the letters facing in reverse, so that the alignment can be printed onto paper once found.

For myself, this project was an interesting exercise in technical construction and collaboration with individuals in different fields. The basic concept was actually pitched by Jim Procter, and was refined by us as a group. Working with the scientists was a very enjoyable process and one which I would do again.