Art of Science: August – Stitching Science

Stitching Science Emily Coyte cross-stitch Memetic Drift

Science is amazing. Science is advancement. And sometimes, science is art. Stitching Science is August’s winner from UoB’s Art of Science competition 2014. 

Wahey, my time has come! I was so pleased that my cross-stitch won the People’s Choice award! It’s the biggest piece I’ve ever designed myself, but I think the dozens of hours it took to stitch were worth it! I wrote the below article to show how it might help answer “What is Biochemistry?” for an upcoming Bristol Biochemistry magazine publication…

To study biochemistry is to gain an insight into the very molecules which make life possible. Each of our cells contains a fascinatingly complex set of structures and carefully regulated reactions. They keep us alive and are a big part of who we are. Biochemists strive to understand how these systems operate individually and together, in health and disease.

Bristol Biochemistry celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. The cross-stitch I created to commemorate this event is made up of a small selection of scientific designs and motifs. Individually they are simple representations of some very intricate structures. Yet together, I hope they provide some indication into what biochemistry is all about.

Biochemistry operates on a wide range of sizes and scales – research could work on the level of molecules, cells or whole organisms. As a result, some of the designs may actually be millions of times bigger or smaller than the ones next to them, regardless of how they appear here!

Annotated Stitching Science Emily Coyte Memetic Drift

Stitching Science by Emily Coyte. Photo by Ben Cowburn.

Let’s start with DNA [1], one of the fundamental molecules of life. The discovery of its famous double-helix structure was made back in 1953. Since then, we have learned so much about how exactly DNA operates as a code or blueprint for all living cells, tissues and complex organisms. Far from existing in isolation, DNA is often swarming with proteins which read, contort and modify it. Understanding these DNA-protein interactions is a current key theme of Bristol Biochemistry research. The related molecule RNA [2] is single stranded and can base-pair with itself, forming a variety of interesting structures like the hairpin you see here.

Surrounding every cell is a double-layered membrane comprised of various phospholipids [3] and studded with thousands of different proteins. One I’ve depicted here is a GPCR [4], also known as a serpentine receptor for the way it snakes in and out of the membrane. GPCRs are responsible for transferring information from outside the cell (e.g. from hormones or drugs) to inside the cell so it can bring about the appropriate response.

Another important membrane protein is ATP synthase [5], a marvellous rotating molecular machine which creates molecules of ATP to power life processes. Millions of these reside in the folded inner membranes of mitochondria [6], the powerhouses of our cells.

Zebrafish larvae [7] and E. coli bacteria [8] are examples of model organisms – well understood species which are favoured by researchers. E. coli are easy to modify and grow in the lab, and their genome is one of the best understood of any organism on Earth. Zebrafish larvae have nearly transparent bodies, so we can easily see inside them and track their growth and development.

Every cell contains a bustling metropolis of molecules. We want to understand how substances within cells get themselves to the right place at the right time in such a crowded molecular environment? The rough endoplasmic reticulum [9] is an organelle involved in protein transport and sorting. It was also a good excuse for me to try out the French-knot stitching technique to represent the ribosomes (black dots) which made it literally rough!

Of course cells themselves are also dynamic and we want to understand how they move and behave. By studying cell division [10] and internal cytoskeletons [11], we can gain insights into many fields including wound healing, cancer research and development.

To understand any of the systems I’ve mentioned above, biochemists need specialised tools. Two of the most common are the trusty pipette [12] to accurately move tiny amounts of fluid around and SDS-PAGE gels [13] which reveal information about differently sized proteins.

Over the last 50 years, Bristol Biochemistry has expanded greatly and made so many discoveries that a simple cross-stitch would never have been enough to represent it all. Hopefully the ones I chose give at least a small insight into the possibilities for learning and discovery here.

Next month shows off the cracks and columns of the Giant’s Causeway…


The annual Art of Science competition at the University of Bristol bridges the perceived gap between art and science, showing images which visually demonstrate that the pursuit of knowledge can be as beautiful as it is fascinating. 

This year there were three prize categories; Judge’s vote, People’s vote, and Schools’ vote. Each category had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize, and a runner-up. Stitching Science won 1st prize for the People’s’vote. Photograph of the cross-stitch was taken by Ben Cowburn.

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