"It was very geeky."
That's how scientist Dr. Michael Rieders explained months of hard work to collect, identify and preserve the DNA of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
Rieders, who works as a forensic toxicologist at NMS Labs in Willow Grove, has had a lifelong interest in Dali because of the artist's use of DNA imagery in some of his paintings.
"He was so capable of capturing scientific discoveries," says Rieders. "He did several really fascinating studies on DNA and, being a forensic scientist, that's right up my alley."
This fascination turned into an international project when Rieders became interested in finding an artifact that held Dali's DNA. After working with The Salvador Dali Gallery in California, Rieders got in touch with Robert and Nicholas Descharnes, who are the world's foremost authenticators of Dali artwork and were among his closest friends.
The Descharneses, who helped care for Dali before his death 18 years ago, had preserved a feeding tube used while Dali was hospitalized. Rieders later found it to hold biological material that allowed him to isolate the artist's DNA.
Though Rieders says that the isolation of the DNA was his initial goal, his success has generated interest in using Dali's DNA in studies to determine whether a gene exists for creativity or genius.
"Everyone knows that Dali was a bit of an unusual individual," says Rieders. "Perhaps there is some genetic explanation for it."
Though Rieders remains skeptical that a gene for creative genius exists, he says that it is possible that Dali's DNA could hold genes that may be identified as being susceptible to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which could have contributed to his outlandish behavior.
Another more immediate use for the DNA would be for art authentication, since Dali is thought to have blessed his artwork with a biological signature. It's not unusual for artists to do this, Rieders says, and various accounts in Dali lore have indicated that the artist used bodily fluids on his art.
Art authenticators would then be able to use DNA-matching to identify true Dali artwork from imposters and may even find more of the artist's work that had not been signed.
Though Rieders recognizes the many implications of his discovery, he remains committed to finding more samples of Dali's DNA in order to be completely sure that the DNA is really his.
"All I really wanted to do was the scientist thing," says Rieders. "Now there's a lot of interest in what we could do with it."