Genomic Origami: The Story Behind This Week’s Science Cover

Editor’s note: Readers were intrigued by the cover of this week’s issue of Science: a paper describing the 3-dimensional structure of the human genome. The lead authors on the paper are Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a Harvard Ph.D. student, and Nynke L. Van Berkum, a postdoc at UMass Med School. The team proposed several alternative images for the cover, including an elaborate DNA-origami objet d’art. Erez tells us the story behind the Science cover.

This is the first post in a two-part series. The conclusion to this story can be found here.

The Mission: Design cover art for our paper on genome folding in this week’s Science.

The Collaborators:

Collaborators, minus Erez

Genome Folder Erez Lieberman-Aiden (not shown), and Paper Folders Erik Demaine, Martin Demaine, Brian Chan, and Jason Ku (pictured above doing his best Munch impression).

The day:

Foldstorming

2PM. Foldstorming. Everyone is happy, but no one has any idea what to do. I don’t even know enough relevant origami words to make sense on a consistent basis. Jason is amazing: he seems to be able to fold anything almost immediately using only a square sheet of paper. But Brian doesn’t think that the folds are ‘Origami’ enough. I’ve clearly stumbled on some kind of major rift in the philosophy of origami. Can the team hold together despite such vast creative differences?…

4PM. Jason has an idea. He wants to 'pleat' a Peano curve (the type of fractal that seems to describe the genome) into a single flat piece of paper. Brian thinks this is sufficiently 'Origami'. Philosophical rapprochement! The construction of the crease pattern begins.

4PM. Jason has an idea. He wants to ‘pleat’ a Peano curve (the type of fractal that seems to describe the genome) into a single flat piece of paper. Brian thinks this is sufficiently ‘Origami’. Philosophical rapprochement! The construction of the crease pattern begins.

Darn it, a typo

5PM. Darn it, a typo. We spent a long time trying to print part of chromosome 14 out onto a ‘big’ piece of paper (called ‘elephant hide’ by origami people; I asked the obvious question, and no, it isn’t). We discover that it takes three computer scientist-hours to print out 2 big pieces of paper; if we had only 1.5 computer scientists, we wouldn’t have had time to make a backup. Either way, a typo is not what we want to find. But actually I’m joking – it’s a SNP. Onward.

6PM. It's going to be a long night. Japanese paper folding and Sushi seem well suited for one another.

6PM. It’s going to be a long night. Japanese paper folding and Sushi seem well suited for one another.

7PM. Origamists with Lazer Beams. The fractal crease pattern for folding a fractal curve using a non-fractal (for the most part) piece of paper is very intricate. Thank goodness for laser beams, which the Demaines use to pre-crease the paper and make it much easier and faster to fold. No, this isn't the Pentagon: it's the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT, and yes, they have computer-guided high speed laser beams.

7PM. Origamists with Lazer Beams. The fractal crease pattern for folding a fractal curve using a non-fractal (for the most part) piece of paper is very intricate. Thank goodness for laser beams, which the Demaines use to pre-crease the paper and make it much easier and faster to fold. No, this isn’t the Pentagon: it’s the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT, and yes, they have computer-guided high speed laser beams.

8PM. It begins. One piece of paper. Miles to fold before he sleeps.

8PM. It begins. One piece of paper. Miles to fold before he sleeps.

8:30 PM. Jason folds. He's enthusiastic. Thank goodness for that - b/c this takes a really long time!

8:30 PM. Jason folds. He’s enthusiastic. Thank goodness for that – b/c this takes a really long time!

9 PM. Brian folds. Can Jason power through?

9 PM. Brian folds. Can Jason power through?

10PM. Jason is making progress. Still only a quarter way there.

10PM. Jason is making progress. Still only a quarter way there.

12PM. Time to go to sleep. The fold is half-done, but everyone is tired.

12PM. Time to go to sleep. The fold is half-done, but everyone is tired.

Coming up this afternoon: The completed fold! + How to do it yourself at home! + Do we get the cover? Check out the conclusion to this story!