LabLit Tip

'Genes Talking' at the ICA, London UK

An interactive molecular biology lab open to the public

3 July 2005

A scientist determining the sequence of a DNA sample

Editor's Note: For those of you living in or near London, don't miss this fantastic opportunity to see a working molecular biology laboratory in action - while enjoying a drink at the same time!

Press Release: 4 – 18 July, 2005


ICA, The Mall, London, SW1Tickets & Box Office Information: 020 7930 3647 /
The laboratory will be open to the public daily from 12 noon – 7.30pm
FREE with ICA Membership (£1.50, £1.00 Concs; except Sat & Sun £2.50, £1.50 Concs)

From Monday 4th July 2005, the ICA theatre will become the unique site for a groundbreaking, time-based installation, transforming into a live, working scientific laboratory. Volunteer scientists will conduct genuine experiments using DNA sequencing technology - used in the Human Genome Project - in the hope of isolating DNA responsible for specific language impairment (SLI), a disorder characterised by problems with verbal communication. In this world first, the public will be able to see a real lab working on a day-to-day basis, talk to scientists, and take part in the analysis of the results.

The experiment will analyse a ‘candidate gene’ for specific language impairment (SLI). Individuals with SLI have problems producing or understanding spoken language, despite normal intelligence. Characteristically they exhibit delayed onset of speech, perhaps not learning to talk until 3 or 4 years of age. SLI is distinct from dyslexia, which involves problems with written language, but is just as common in the population.

By allowing public access to a working scientific lab and involvement in a genuine scientific experiment, Genes Talking aims to demystify the scientific process and bring about a better understanding of genetics. The project is the result of a collaboration between science–arts consultant, Dr Julie Webb, curator, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Professor Anthony Monaco from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, and Professor Mandy Fisher from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (MRC CSC).

Visitors to Genes Talking can contribute to these experiments in the ICA’s Digital Studio. Data generated from the DNA sequencing reaction will be collected digitally, taking the form of a simple graph. Members of the public will be invited to read DNA sequences on the graph from people with SLI, and compare these to the normal sequences, noting any differences. A simple procedure of interpreting coloured peaks from a graph, corresponding to letters of the genetic alphabet, this will also give participants a feel for the everyday life of a scientist, which is at times humdrum, often frustrating, but occasionally exhilarating. Their contribution will be acknowledged in the form of a printed certificate and also on future research publications.

This project is part of an ongoing initiative by the ICA to cross-pollinate the worlds of arts, culture and science; the choice of a ‘language gene’ for study looks to encourage debate on the nature of genetic research and its relationship to culture, society, and philosophy.

The ICA laboratory will be informed by the availability of supplementary background information about the science and technology involved, including vox-pop interviews with scientists, a website (, and a programme of talks, featuring Peter Singer ( Tues 5 July).


Over the last decade many studies have shown that SLI tends to run in families, suggesting that it involves some genetic component. Two DNA regions have been identified which may be involved in language impairment: one on chromosome 16; and a second on chromosome 19. Each of these regions is large and contains many good candidate genes.

One of the genes from chromosome 16 is similar to a gene that was previously shown to be involved in dyslexia. The Genes Talking scientists believe this gene is the best candidate for SLI in this region. During this experiment, they will sequence fifty controls and fifty patient samples and look differences between their DNA. Some differences, or polymorphisms, may represent normal variation. However, if they can uncover a loss-of-function mutation, they believe this could be causative in language impairment. Using this strategy they will confirm or rule out this candidate’s involvement in SLI.


Tues 5 July, 6.45pm
What difference will advances in the science of genetics and DNA make to our future and how should philosophers and ethicists respond to it? How will it affect the way that we think about ourselves and our children, our ideas about free will and our relationship with animals? To mark the launch of the ICA’s live sequencing lab, Peter Singer, one of the world’s leading ethicists and theorists of animal rights, will deliver a lecture on our future and the genome. Peter Singer is the DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and editor of In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave and co-editor of The Moral of the Story. Following his lecture, Singer will be in conversation with Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. £8, £7 Concs, £6 Members

Mon 11 July, 7pm
Thanks to the lavish investment of major cultural and scientific institutions, sci-art has moved from a niche pursuit into the mainstream. But is it simply an excuse for bad art? Can the encounter between science and arts change ways of thinking creatively and lead to fruitful new avenues, or is it an excuse for a failure of vision – and a failure to communicate that vision – on both sides. Speakers: Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to medicine, University College London; Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, The Wellcome Trust; Sandra Kemp, Head of Research, Royal College of Art. Chair: Emma Crichton-Miller, journalist and writer. £8, £7 Concs, £6 ICA Members

Thur 14 July, 7pm
Is human language a natural progression of animal communications, or has there been a genetic leap in our ability to communicate? The issue of whether there is continuity between animal communication and human language has always been contentious. But what clues can the new science of comparative genomics offer?
Speakers: Professor Anthony Monaco, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and Head of the Neurogenetics group; Heather van der Lely, Professor and Director of the Centre for Developmental Language Disorders and Cognitive Neuroscience; Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, Research Associate with the Institute of Human Sciences, Oxford University and author of Out of Eden. Chair: Professor Amanda Fisher, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre. £8, £7 Concs, £6 ICA Members