Retina Roulette (Research Remix)


Research Remix (a project organized by the Digital Media Center at Johns Hopkins University) is “a series of events designed to bring together artists and designers with scientific researchers in order to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and develop compelling new projects.”

This project was completed in collaboration with Kiara Eldred at Johnston and Hattar Labs, Johns Hopkins University (Robert J. Johnston Jr., P.I.) and based upon data derived from her research into “Stochastic Human Opsin Choice.”

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The result of this collaboration is a series of 360 scratch off tickets demonstrating the two working hypotheses for retina cone fate.

In speaking with Kiara about the research, it was her interest in chance and randomness that struck me. The distribution of cone cells and the decision on how they develop in the human eye comes from a random biological choice. She expressed that there are many random choices in human development but the retina has two distinct random choices (with 3 potential outcomes). If we can understand how this seemingly random choice happens in an isolated system like the eye, then perhaps we can better understand more extensive random choices throughout the body.

Throughout my work, I choose to demonstrate processes. It is not the individual tickets, but the entirety of the series that comprises this work – mirroring the duration of growth and data recorded in her research. The viewers act as the catalyst for the random expression of a cone by scratching off the hidden portions of a ticket, helping to develop the retina, thereby becoming the process of opsin choice and cone fate themselves.

The choice to produce 360 tickets comes from the duration of development of the retina as explained in Kiara’s research. Of those 360 tickets, the first 129 all present the message “No Opsin” in both games since it was not until after 129 days of growth that the retinas showed evidence of a cone opsin protein.

The first game on the scratch off ticket explores the Transcription Factor Hypothesis. If a transcription factor protein is present, then cones develop to be sensitive to long wavelengths of light (red light) and medium wavelengths of light (green light). If no transcription factor protein is present, then the cones develop to be sensitive to short wavelengths of light (blue light).

If a transcription factor is present in the first hypothesis, then it is bound to a Locus Control Region on the DNA. Depending on which gene the Locus Control Region and the transcription factor loops to, either the green or the red opsin will be expressed and the cell will develop into a Green cone or a Red cone. If a “Transcription Factor” is found in Game 1, then Game 2 (The LCR Looping Hypothesis) will reveal either a green or red cone. If a blue cone was found in game 1, then the cone fate has already been set and Game 2 will state that Blue Opsin had already been expressed.