SYLVIA VETTA talks to a geneticist and painter behind an art show inspired by the idea that we descend from seven women

The Seven Daughters of Eve is trailed as a fusion of art with science. If they have succeeded in their aim then this exhibition is imbued with the spirit of Leonardo. The scientific concept behind the show is that all of us of European descent can trace our ancestry to seven women. Eve herself came out of Africa!

Some years ago, a friend of Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University, asked him if it was possible to obtain DNA from ancient bones rather like Michael Crichton imagined in Jurassic Park. He replied: "No," but went on to prove himself wrong by being the first scientist to extract DNA from archaeological human remains. In 2000, he set up Oxford Ancestors, a company part owned by Oxford University through which any of us can find out about our genetic ancestry.

In his bestselling book The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan writes: "Our DNA does not fade like an ancient parchment: it does not rust in the ground like a sword of a warrior long dead. It is not eroded by wind or rain, nor reduced to ruin by fire and earthquake. It is the traveller from an antique land who lives within us all."

He has spent the last 20 years unravelling what mitochondrial DNA tells us about our past.

"It moves down the maternal line and is passed on almost unchanged," said Brian. "There are 36 genetically related groups in the world. In Europe, most people are descended from one of only seven clan mothers."

Bryan is a scientist who writes like a poet and so he gave evocative names to these seven goddesses - Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine.

Prof Sykes described how he met Ulla Ploughmand Turner, the artist whose work is being exhibited in Oxford, by chance when he was taking DNA samples from villagers at Longleat.

"Ulla happened to be visiting and so I also tested her. We discovered that we both descend from Tara. Our backgrounds are very different but we had an immediate rapport.

"I have noticed that people with the same clan-mother usually feel at ease with each other. It seemed a natural progression to commission artistic impressions of the seven.

"When I saw her work I liked Ulla's use of vibrant colours and dynamic images. She is best known for her dreamlike interpretation of the beauty of the female form. So she was the natural choice for the project."

Ulla, who grew up in Denmark, has been painting for over 15 years but she describes incorporating mitochondrial DNA into the oils as the most exciting project she has undertaken. The results surprised her.

"It affected the texture of the paint. The mDNA spreads like strands of string. Brian had given particular colours to each goddess. I am Tara and my colour is burnt yellow, Jasmine is red and Velda a striking purple. We mixed each shade with the DNA from descendants of each clan mother. I was careful to use seven different sets of brushes so that the DNA in each picture would not be contaminated.

"It felt as if the personality of each goddess evolved almost eerily using this unique paint and I knew instinctively how to continue on my canvas. It took me six months to complete the series."

The paintings, which will be on show at Wolfson College, are not for sale as they will grace the offices of Oxford Ancestors. Jennifer Corrigan, of the Jennifer Gerard Gallery in Abingdon, arranged for fine art reproductions to be made and these are for sale. Jennifer explained her interest. "I was a molecular biologist and worked with Brian on a post-doctorate until 1993. Last year, I changed direction and opened my gallery and so I was Bryan's obvious port of call when he decided to generate the prints."

I asked Bryan how we can discover which of these ancient goddesses we are descended from?

"If you come to the exhibition, you can arrange to have a DNA test. It simply involves taking a swab. With the results of each test, we shall provide a print of Ulla's visualisation of your daughter of Eve at no extra cost."

I had a go myself and the simple procedure did indeed take just a few minutes. If you would like to trace your ancestry and cannot make the exhibition you can contact Oxford Ancestors on 01865 374425 or you can visit their website on Prints of the paintings are available from the Jennifer Gerard Gallery in Stert Street, Abingdon, or from the website The Seven Daughters of Eve is at Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford, from Monday until Friday, June 22, from 10am to 4pm. Entry is free but please ring the college lodge on 01865 274100 to confirm availability.