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A Double Helix Yarn

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June Oshiro, 27, is still working on her PhD in molecular biology at Rutgers University, but she has already been published in Nature Genetics — not just once, but four issues in a row. It’s not that her work in yeast phospholipid phosphotase has been ignored, but it’s Oshiro’s knitting prowess that has gotten her all the attention lately. That’s her cable-knit double helix swatch adorning the January through April covers.

Oshiro took up knitting when she started grad school in 1997 as a hobby — “It’s meditative,” she says — but quickly became an enthusiast and a regular on Internet knitting newsgroups.

“It’s mostly a chatty group of older ladies,” says Oshiro. One woman had been trying to design a cable pattern that looks like DNA but couldn’t get it right. “And I thought, ooh, what a great idea. And I got all excited and I thought, I bet I could figure this out.” The next morning, through the course of a biochemistry class, she did. And in the true academic spirit of open source, she posted the pattern on the Internet. “I didn’t do it for money,” she says. “I did it for fun.”

As a scientist, she made sure the pattern remained faithful to the structure of DNA. “I’ve got the right ratio of nucleotides per turn,” says Oshiro. “It’s dead on accurate.”

The artistic director of Nature Genetics found the swatch on a routine Web search for DNA images and used it for the cover. Oshiro first heard about it from a friend at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s funny because I did this a few years ago and pretty much forgot about it. And then all of a sudden it surfaced again,” she says.

Now she gets calls like: “My son is a scientist and he brought home the journal and he said, ‘Mom, can you make me this?’” But “how do you do the cable crossing on row 31?” To knit your own scarf you can download Oshiro’s pattern at http://noodle.pds.k12.nj.us/june/DNAScarf.html.

Oshiro has also started a charity knitting circle at Rutgers’ food science department, where she teaches some 15 other students to knit. “We’ve been making little afghan squares which we put together into blankets for distribution to local hospitals and programs for battered women and children,” says Oshiro.

“What’s surprising,” she says, “is that nobody developed this kind of pattern before. The structure of DNA has been known for decades and there have been knitters for decades. You’d think somebody would have charted this thing out. But it seems to never have been done before.”

— Aaron J. Sender

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