Reasons to Believe

Pixels and Nucleotides: Artistry in the Details

We’re big movie fans in our house and we love to see how our favorites were made. While exploring the “behind-the-scenes” featurettes on our copy of DisneyPixar’s Brave I stumbled across a little gem called “Wonder Moss.” In it, sets forest development artist Iñigo Quilez explains the complex mathematics used to create the film’s beautiful Scottish setting:

Most people think of mathematics as something boring and mechanical—but that’s not the way we see mathematics at Pixar. For us, maths are a tool to create images, movement, richness, and fun, actually.

He goes on to say that making a movie like Brave requires monitoring almost 200 billion pixels (each pixel is assigned three numbers that fine-tune its color). This film also required myriad mathematical equations to generate the rich, mossy backgrounds. For example, one equation controlled the thickness of a particular moss, while another controlled the moss’s movement, and so on. The amount of detail certainly dazzled this math-challenged English major.

Details in DNA

Even more dazzling is the detail inherent in DNA. As of October 2004, the Human Genome Project estimates human DNA contains 20,000–25,000 protein-coding genes (“a surprisingly low number for our species”) and 3 billion chemical base pairs (“the building blocks of the DNA double helix”). These numbers seem small compared to Brave’s pixel count—but the human genome is replete with astounding intricacies, all optimized to operate as efficiently and correctly as possible. In his book The Cell’s Design, RTB biochemist Fuz Rana writes, “Recent studies indicate that, like proteins, the structural features of DNA are also exceptional.”

For example, DNA is composed of fine-tuned nucleotides (specifically, adenosine, guanosine, cytidine, and thymidine). These nucleotides must be made up of the just-right components—and Fuz notes that these components “appear to have been carefully chosen for unsurpassed performance.” Then, in order to code for the appropriate proteins, the nucleotides must be arranged in the just-right sequences (codons) and, in turn, these sequences must be placed in the just-right spots along the DNA strand.

And that’s just the tip of the genetic iceberg. The world of DNA is vast and complex—and, as recently indicated by the ENCODE Project, we still have a lot to learn about it.

Thoughtful artists

When we look at the artistry in a movie like Brave, it’s abundantly clear that someone—indeed an entire team of people—put a lot of heart and many long hours into crafting the finished product. In the laboratory, the efforts to create an artificial life-form reveal that an inordinate amount of planning, expertise, and precision is needed to make even a simple bacterium.

Looking at the human genome, it seems apparent that more than mere undirected natural processes had a hand in creating such a detailed and vital element. Someone put a lot of thought and care into designing genetic material perfectly suited to be life’s blueprint.

— Maureen

Resources: For more on the design of DNA and other biochemical systems, check out these books from Fazale Rana.

Subjects: Biochemical Design