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The Boys from Brazil

Helen Polson clasped her hands together, excited, as she took in an exhibit at an art show focused on genetics in New York last week. One in a series of fashion designs based on human embryonic development, it shows a woman, spinal column exposed, draped in a helical red dress of DNA sequencing gel.

"I'm not a scientist," said Ms. Polson, 27, a student at New York University. "But this helps you see, it's not just about the scientific code, it's a new way of looking at the body, it's part of what makes us people." Pausing, she added, "Also, I love fashion."

Since the discovery of the double helix 50 years ago unlocked the molecular secret of life, the popular imagination has been busily sequencing its own meaning from the ultimate scientific symbol. As scientists rush to decipher the way genes express their biological functions, the public's hopes and fears about the power of DNA have found expression in forms both prosaic and profound.

Replicating itself with the efficiency for which it is famous, the double helix has produced...