Tag Archives: Sanger sequencing

The Backstreet Boys sing genetics (not really) but their latest album is called “DNA”

Other that the promotional artwork, cover art and the title, the Backstreet Boys pop band does not seem to have taken science or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)/genetics to heart in their latest oeuvre. As for what chickens have to do with it, I I gather this is some sort of humorous nod to a past hit song. Still, I am weirdly fascinated by this January 25, 2019 video news item on Billboard,

Having looked at the list of songs on the DNA album (they’re listed in the Billboard news item where they’ve embedded audio samples), I can’t find anything that suggests an interest in genetics but perhaps you can: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart? Nobody Else? Breathe? New Love? Passionate? Is It Just Me? Chances? No Place? Chateau? The Way It Was? Just Like You Like it? OK? Anyone who can figure out how the songs relate to DNA, please let me know in the Comments.

Frankly, that’s as much analysis as I can offer on the topic. Thankfully, Karen James (an independent educator, researcher, and consultant in molecular biology) has written a February 5, 2019 article (I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA) for slate.com where she unpacks the imagery in the promotional material and on the cover (Note: Links have been removed),

The Backstreet Boys are back. Credit: Dennis Leupold [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

The Backstreet Boys released a new album. I never thought I’d start a science article—or any article—with that sentence, but here we are.

We are here because the promotional artwork for the album (above) is a photograph of the boy band (man band?) lit by a projection of DNA bands. The image, and the album’s title, DNA, jumped out of my Twitter timeline because I’m a geneticist, I work with DNA, and I’ve seen countless images just like it in textbooks and research articles. I’ve even made them myself in the lab.

What struck me as funny (both funny-ha-ha and funny-odd) is that the lab methods that could have produced this image are old—older even than the Backstreet Boys’ first album. One of the methods—called Sanger sequencing—was published in 1977, making it even older than two of the Backstreet Boys themselves, scientist Kristy Lamb pointed out. Genetics is a particularly fast-moving science. New technologies are constantly emerging and eclipsing prior ones. Yet this 40-year-old imagery persists, and not just in the promotional artwork for DNA. Just do a Google image search for “DNA sequencing” and you’ll see plenty of images like this mixed in with the double helices and long GATTACA readouts.

After her description of Sanger sequencing James offers another ‘sequencing’ possibility, almost as old as the Sanger technique,

Careful readers might have noticed that I suggested there was more than one method that produces images like this. At first glance, I thought the projection in the Backstreet Boys’ publicity photo was modified from an image made with Sanger sequencing. But when I looked again in preparation for writing this article, I had second thoughts. Why aren’t the lanes clustered in groups of four? Why are some of the bands in adjacent lanes the same size? (They shouldn’t be if you’re doing Sanger sequencing.) It could be that the photo was heavily modified with individual lanes copied and pasted. Indeed, some of the lanes are even identical to each other (*suppresses fake ivory tower scoff*).

Or it could be that this image was made with another old method: DNA fingerprinting. Made famous in so many crime TV shows, DNA fingerprinting was invented in 1984 by Alec Jeffreys, who, though he did not win a Nobel Prize, was made a knight of the British Empire for his contribution to science, among many other prestigious awards, which is nice.

I suspect the Backstreet Boys weren’t going for a tongue-in-cheek reference to their own advancing age. While today’s DNA sequencing methods produce images that scarcely resemble those produced by Sanger sequencing and DNA fingerprinting, the old-school imagery is still everywhere. The Backstreet Boys’ promotional team probably just went with a stock image that looked compelling and worked well as a projection.

James returns to her theme, why use imagery associated with outdated techniques? (Note: Links have been removed),

But that doesn’t answer the real question: Why is 40-year-old imagery still so ubiquitous? As science writer and editor Stephanie Keep tweeted, one reason may be that, despite its age, the Sanger method is still taught in high school classrooms: “It’s so visual and intuitive.” It’s true. When I teach students about DNA sequencing, I always start with Sanger sequencing and use that as the basis for explaining newer technologies, adding more complexity as I go, following the historical timeline.

Another reason the old imagery is still in use may be that the images produced by newer, so-called next-generation sequencing methods aren’t visually scored by a scientist sitting at a lab bench, but by computers. As such, the images themselves often go unseen by human eyes [emphasis mine], despite their colorful beauty.

Interesting, eh? The latest imagery is not seen by human eyes. So the newest imagery is intended for machines. James presents an example of the ‘new’ imagery,

An image generated using a next-generation DNA sequencing method.. Credit: Illumina [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

According to James, this image was not easily obtained according to one of her tweets. [https://twitter.com/kejames/status/1092888034322845696] So, big thanks to Illumina (there’s also a Wikipedia entry about the company). Getting back to James’ and her article, she asks why the band titled their latest album, DNA,

But why did the Backstreet Boys call their album DNA in the first place? The official RCA Records press release announcing the album says, “BSB analyzed their individual DNA profiles to see what crucial element each member represents in the groups DNA.” It links to a YouTube video that supposedly explains “how their individual strains, when brought together, create the unstoppable and legendary Backstreet Boys.”

The video is a futuristic, spy movie–esque montage, complete with a computerized female voice describing the various characteristics of each Backstreet Boy. Reader, I confess: I cringed. There were so many tropes and misconceptions about DNA packed into the 83-second video, I would have to write a follow-up to this just to explore them. The cringeworthiness doesn’t end there, though. The cover of DNA has each Backstreet Boy on his own spiral staircase.

The staircases are surely meant to evoke the structure of DNA: the famous double helix. But there’s a problem, as the social media account for the journal Genome Biology tweeted: The staircases are spiraling in the wrong direction. DNA is usually right-handed. If you stick out your right thumb, your fingers will naturally curl in a right-handed spiral as you move your hand in the direction your thumb is pointing. The Backstreet Boys’ staircases are left-handed.

Here’s the promotional trailer for DNA,

It’s everything James says it is. As for those wrongly spiraling DNA staircases,

RCA Records [downloaded from https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backstreet-boys-dna-album-cover-gene-sequencing.html]

Thank you to Karen James for this illuminating article. If you have time, I encourage you to read her piece in its entirety:
I Want DNA That Way; The Backstreet Boys’ new album and tour features a very old-school depiction of DNA.

As for why the Backstreet Boys called their album DNA and you likely guessed. it would seem to be a promotional gimmick meant to leverage the perceived interest in commercial DNA testing by companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry, amongst others.