October 7, 2013
There have been some interesting creatures popping up in the Arctic. Canadian hunters have found white bears with brown tints—a cross between Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly. A couple of decades ago, off the coast of Greenland, something that appeared to be half-narwhal, half-beluga surfaced, and much more recently, Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise mixes have been swimming near British Columbia.
In “The Arctic Melting Pot,” a study published in the journal Nature in December 2010, Brendan Kelly, Andrew Whiteley and David Tallmon claim, ”These are just the first of many hybridizations that will threaten polar diversity.” The biologists speculated a total of 34 possible hybridizations (pdf).
Arctic sea ice is melting, and fast—at a rate of 30,000 square miles per year, according to NASA. And, some scientists predict that the region will be ice-free within about 40 years. “Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” says Kelly and his colleagues in the study. Naturally, there will be some interbreeding.
Such mixed offspring are hard to find. But, thanks to technology and the creative mind of artist Nickolay Lamm, they’re not hard to envision.
Say a harp seal (Phoca groenandica) mates with a hooded seal (Cystophora crostata), or a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breeds with a right whale (Eubalaena spp.). What would the offspring look like? Dina Spector, an editor at Business Insider, was curious and posed the question to Lamm.
This past spring, Lamm, who creates forward-looking illustrations from scientific research, produced scenes depicting the effect of sea level rise on coastal U.S. cities over the next few centuries, based on data reported by Climate Central, for the news outlet. Now, building off Spector’s question, he has created a series of digitally manipulated photographs—his visions of several supposed Arctic hybrids.
“In that Nature report, it was just a huge list of species which could cross breed with one another. I feel that images speak a lot more,” says Lamm. “With these, we can actually see the consequences of climate change.”
Lamm first selected several of the hybridizations listed in the study for visual examination. He then picked a stock photo of one of the two parent species (shown on the left in each pairing), then digitally manipulated it to reflect the shape, features and coloring of the other species (on the right). Blending these, he derived a third photograph of their potential young.
To inform his edits in Photoshop, the artist looked at any existing photographs of the crossbred species. “There are very, very few of them,” he notes. He also referred to any written descriptions of the hybrids and, enlisting the help of wildlife biologist Elin Pierce, took into account the dominant features of each original species. In some cases, Lamm took some artistic merit. He chose to illustrate the narwhal-beluga mix, for example, with no tusk, when Pierce suggested that the animal may or may not have a very short tooth protruding from its mouth.
Biologists are concerned about the increasing likelihood of this crossbreeding. “As more isolated populations and species come into contact, they will mate, hybrids will form and rare species are likely to go extinct,” reports Nature.
Many critics of Lamm’s series have argued that these hybrids may just be a product of evolution. But, to that, Lamm says,”Climate change is a result of us humans and [this is] not just some natural evolution that would happen without us.”
About the project itself, he adds, “I am personally concerned about the environment, and this is just my way of expressing my worry about climate change.”
May 14, 2013
The chemistry of the ocean is changing. Most climate change discussion focuses on the warmth of the air, but around one-quarter of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean. Dissolved carbon dioxide makes seawater more acidic—a process called ocean acidification—and its effects have already been observed: the shells of sea butterflies, also known as pteropods, have begun dissolving in the Antarctic.
Tiny sea butterflies are related to snails, but use their muscular foot to swim in the water instead of creep along a surface. Many species have thin, hard shells made of calcium carbonate that are especially sensitive to changes in the ocean’s acidity. Their sensitivity and cosmopolitan nature make them an alluring study group for scientists who want to better understand how acidification will affect ocean organisms. But some pteropod species are proving to do just fine in more acidic water, while others have shells that dissolve quickly. So why do some species perish while others thrive?
It’s a hard question to answer when scientists can hardly tell pteropod species apart in the first place. The cone-shaped pteropod shown here is in a group of shelled sea butterflies called thecosomes, from the Greek for “encased body.” There are two other groups: the pseudothecosomes have gelatinous shells, and the gymnosomes (“naked body”) have none at all. Within these groups it can be hard to tell who’s who, especially when relying on looks alone. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are using genetics to uncover the differences among the species.
This effort is led by zoologist Karen Osborn, who has a real knack for photography: in college, she struggled over whether to major in art or science. After collecting living animals while SCUBA diving in the open ocean, she brings them back to the research ship and photographs each in a shallow tank of clear water with a Canon 5D camera with a 65mm lens, using three to four flashes to capture the colors of the mostly-transparent critters. The photographs have scientific use—to capture never-before-recorded images of the living animals—and to “inspire interest in these weird, wild animals,” she said. All of these photos were taken in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Mexico and California.
Although sea butterflies in the gymnosome group, like the one seen above, don’t have shells and are therefore not susceptible to the dangers of ocean acidification, their entire diet consists of shelled pteropods. If atmospheric CO2 continues to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and, in turn, the ocean becomes more acidic, their prey source may disappear—indirectly endangering these stunning predators and all the fish, squid and other animals that feed on the gymnosomes.
For years, sea butterflies were only collected by net. When collected this way, the animals (such as Cavolinia uncinata above) retract their fleshy “wings” and bodies into pencil eraser-sized shells, which often break in the process. Researchers then drop the collected pteropods into small jars of alcohol for preservation, which causes the soft parts to shrivel—leaving behind just the shell. Scientists try to sort the sea butterflies into species by comparing the shells alone, but without being able to see the whole animals, they may miss the full diversity of pteropods.
More recently, scientists such as Osborn and Smithsonian researcher Stephanie Bush have begun collecting specimens by hand while SCUBA diving in the open sea. This blue-water diving allows her to collect and photograph fragile organisms. As she and her colleagues observe living organisms in more detail, they are realizing that animals they had thought were the same species, in fact, may not be! This shelled pteropod (Cavolinia uncinata) is considered the same species as the one in the previous photo. Because their fleshy parts look so different, however, Bush is analyzing each specimen’s genetic code to establish whether they really are the same species.
This string of eggs shot out of Cavolinia uncinata when it was being observed under the microscope. The eggs are attached to one another in a gelatinous mass, and, had they not been self-contained in a petri dish, would have floated through the water until the new pteropods emerged as larvae. Their reproduction methods aren’t well studied, but we know that pteropods start off as males and once they reach a certain size switch over to females. This sexual system, known as sequential hermaphroditism, may boost reproduction because bigger females can produce more eggs.
This pteropod (Limacina helicina) has taken a beating from being pulled through a trawl net: you can see the broken edges of its shell. An abundant species with black flesh, each of these sea butterflies are the size of a large grain of sand. In certain conditions they “bloom” and, when fish eat too many, the pteropod’s black coloring stains the fishes’ guts black.
Not only is the inside of this shell home to a pteropod (Clio recurva), but the outside houses a colony of hydroids—the small pink flower-like animals connected by transparent tubing all over the shell. Hydroids, small, predatory animals related to jellyfish, need to attach to a surface in the middle of the ocean to build their colony, and the tiny shell of Clio is the perfect landing site. While it’s a nice habitat for the hydroids, this shell probably provides less than ideal protection for the pteropod: the opening is so large that a well equipped predator, such as larger shell-less pteropods, can likely just reach in and pull it out. “I would want a better house, personally,“ says Osborn.
Gymnosomes are pteropods that lack shells and have a diet almost entirely composed of shelled pteropods. This species (Clione limacina), exclusively feeds on Limacina helicina (the black-fleshed pteropod a few slides back). They grab their shelled relative with six tentacle-like arms, and then use grasping jaws to suck their meal out of the shell.
This post was written by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters. Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
May 3, 2013
It started with hair. Donning a pair of rubber gloves, Heather Dewey-Hagborg collected hairs from a public bathroom at Penn Station and placed them in plastic baggies for safe keeping. Then, her search expanded to include other types of forensic evidence. As the artist traverses her usual routes through New York City from her home in Brooklyn, down sidewalks onto city buses and subway cars—even into art museums—she gathers fingernails, cigarette butts and wads of discarded chewing gum.
Do you get strange looks? I ask, in a recent phone conversation. “Sometimes,” says Dewey-Hagborg. “But New Yorkers are pretty used to people doing weird stuff.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s odd habit has a larger purpose. The 30-year-old PhD student, studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, extracts DNA from each piece of evidence she collects, focusing on specific genomic regions from her samples. She then sequences these regions and enters this data into a computer program, which churns out a model of the face of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette or gum behind.
It gets creepier.
From those facial models, she then produces actual sculptures using a 3D printer. When she shows the series, called “Stranger Visions,” she hangs the life-sized portraits, like life masks, on gallery walls. Oftentimes, beside a portrait, is a Victorian-style wooden box with various compartments holding the original sample, data about it and a photograph of where it was found.
Rest assured, the artist has some limits when it comes to what she will pick up from the streets. Though they could be helpful to her process, Dewey-Hagborg refuses to swipe saliva samples and used condoms. She tells me she has had the most success with cigarette butts. “They [smokers] really get their gels into that filter of the cigarette butt,” she says. “There just tends to be more stuff there to actually pull the DNA from.”
Dewey-Hagborg takes me step-by-step through her creative process. Once she collects a sample, she brings it to one of two labs—Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, or one on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (She splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.) Early on in the project, the artist took a crash course in molecular biology at Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, where she learned about DNA extraction and a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). She uses standard DNA extraction kits that she orders online to analyze the DNA in her samples.
If the sample is a wad of chewing gum, for example, she cuts a little piece off of it, then cuts that little piece into even smaller pieces. She puts the tiny pieces into a tube with chemicals, incubates it, puts it in a centrifuge and repeats, multiple times, until the chemicals successfully extract purified DNA. After that, Dewey-Hagborg runs a polymerase chain reaction on the DNA, amplifying specific regions of the genome that she’s targeted. She sends the
mitochondrial amplified DNA (from both mitochondria and the cells’ nuclei) to a lab to get sequenced, and the lab returns about 400 base pair sequences of guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (G, A, T and C).
Dewey-Hagborg then compares the sequences returned with those found in human genome databases. Based on this comparison, she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color, propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of working on right now,” she says.
Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into sculpture.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how accurate Dewey-Hagborg’s sculptures are—since the samples are from anonymous individuals, a direct comparison cannot be made. Certainly, there are limitations to what is known about how genes are linked to specific facial features.”We are really just starting to learn about that information,” says Dewey-Hagborg. The artist has no way, for instance, to tell the age of a person based on their DNA. “For right now, the process creates basically a 25-year-old version of the person,” she says.
That said, the “Stranger Visions” project is a startling reminder of advances in both technology and genetics. “It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere,” says Dewey-Hagbog. “That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?”
Hal Brown, of Delaware’s medical examiner’s office, contacted the artist recently about a cold case. For the past 20 years, he has had the remains of an unidentified woman, and he wondered if the artist might be able to make a portrait of her—another clue that could lead investigators to an answer. Dewey-Hagborg is currently working on a sculpture from a DNA sample Brown provided.
“I have always had a love for detective stories, but never was part of one before. It has been an interesting turn for the art to take,” she says. “It is hard to say just yet where else it will take me.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s work will be on display at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on May 12. She is taking part in a policy discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on June 3 and will be giving a talk, with a pop-up exhibit, at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. The QF Gallery in East Hampton, Long Island, will be hosting an exhibit from June 29-July 13, as will the New York Public Library from January 7 to April 2, 2014.
Editor’s Note: After getting great feedback from our readers, we clarified how the artist analyzes the DNA from the samples she collects.
February 22, 2013
The most radical figure in the biodesign movement is Eduardo Kac, who doesn’t merely incorporate existing living things in his artworks—he tries to create new life-forms. “Transgenic art,” he calls it.
There was Alba, an albino bunny that glowed green under a black light. Kac had commissioned scientists in France to insert a fluorescent protein from Aequoria victoria, a bioluminescent jellyfish, into a rabbit egg. The startling creature, born in 2000, was not publicly exhibited, but the announcement caused a stir, with some scientists and animal rights activists suggesting it was unethical. Others, though, voiced support. “He’s pushing the boundaries between art and life, where art is life,” Staci Boris, then a Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, curator, said at the time.
Then came Edunia, the centerpiece of Kac’s Natural History of the Enigma, a work that debuted at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis in 2009. Edunia is a petunia that harbors one of Kac’s own genes. “It lives. It is real, as real as you and I,” says Kac, a Brazil native living in Chicago. “Except nature didn’t make it, I did.”
Still, he had help. The project began in 2003, when the artist had his blood drawn at a lab in Minneapolis. From the sample, technicians isolated a specific genetic sequence from his immune system—a fragment of an immunoglobulin gene that produces an antibody, the very thing that can distinguish “self” from “non-self” and fights off viruses, microbes and other foreign invaders.
The DNA sequence was sent to Neil Olszewski, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota. In recent years, Olszewski had identified a virus promoter that could control the expression of genes in a plant’s veins. After six years of tinkering, the artist-scientist duo inserted a copy of Kac’s immunoglobulin gene fragment into a common breed of the flower Petunia hybrida.
It’s not the first transgenic plant. A gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis is routinely introduced to corn and cotton to make the crops insect-resistant. Also, scientists are inserting human genes into plants, in an attempt to manufacture drugs on a large scale; the plants essentially become factories, producing human antibodies used to diagnose diseases. “But you don’t have plants that have been made to explore ideas,” Olszewski says. “Eduardo came to this with an artistic vision. That is the real novelty.”
Kac selected the pink petunia, in large part because of the distinct red veins that hint at his own red blood. And though he refers to his creation as a “plantimal,” that may be overstating the case. The organism has only a minuscule stretch of human DNA amid many thousands of plant genes. Yet it’s the idea of the encounter between the viewer and this curiously endowed plant that mainly interests the artist. Whenever Natural History of the Enigma has been exhibited, Kac has presented Edunia alone on a pedestal, to heighten the drama. “To me, that is pure poetry,” he says.
He predicts that people will have to get more used to strange, genetically engineered hybrids in the future. “Once you are in the presence of this other creature, the world is not the same,” says Kac. “There is no going back.”
October 5, 2012
Last weekend, I went apple picking. It’s one of my favorite fall traditions, and I have been going every year since I can remember. When I was a kid, my mother made a trip to the apple orchard a magical thing. She taught me how to gently twist an apple, so that it would pop off the branch without others plunking to the ground. She would point out the sun-kissed fruits at the tippy top of the trees while I climbed to get them.
We’d leave the orchard with a bag of salty cheese curds, half-eaten caramel apples and pounds and pounds of beautiful apples in sacks slung over our shoulders. Then, the baking would begin.
As I marveled at the way she could peel an apple in one long, curly strand, my mom imparted her wisdom. “The Northern Spy is a pie apple,” she’d say. “For applesauce, Cortlands. And Galas, Paula Reds and Honey Crisps are just good eating apples.”
But for all my picking experience, when it comes down to it, I don’t actually know very much about how these delicious varieties came in to being.
A few years ago, Jessica Rath, an artist based in Los Angeles, had a similar realization. She was reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and learned about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit (PGRU) located on part of Cornell University’s campus in Geneva, New York. Pollan described this facility as a “botanic ark,” since it preserves living trees of some of the rarest and most endangered apple varieties.
You see, if you plant an apple tree from a seed, odds are its apples will be bitter. This is the case even if you pluck a seed from the tastiest apple in the orchard and plant it, because each seed has its own genetic material. To replicate a tree with sweet apples, orchardists, therefore, graft from that tree and produce a field of clones.
To Rath, this idea that the edible apple is a human creation—a work of art, even—was spellbinding.
“What other than taste was attractive to a man or a woman over the hundred years that he decided to graft that tree?” says Rath. “Was it the blush of a cheek? Its whiteness? Or possibly its muscular size?”
What constituted beauty, she wondered, in the scientist’s eye?
On September 15, 2009, Rath made her plea on Kickstarter—Take me to the apple breeder…. In two weeks, thanks to generous donors, she had a trip to Geneva funded.
At the PGRU, apple curator Philip Forsline showed Rath around the many varieties he has collected from the far reaches of the world. The artist then met with Cornell scientist Susan Brown, who breeds new-and-improved disease-resistant varieties for mass production at the Agricultural Experiment Station. During her visit, Rath photographed the diversity in the apples she saw. She also took hundreds of apples home to Los Angeles with her. “I bought an extra refrigerator,” she says, “and kept them as cold as I could keep them.”
From the rare varieties she had stowed, Rath then selected nine of “the smallest ones, the largest ones, the ones that were the most muscular and odd” to sculpt. For each type, she combined her favorite characteristics from several individual apples into one sculpted apple. “They are not copies,” she says. But the final products are life-sized.
To create her tempting porcelain apples, Rath began by sculpting the apple out of clay. Then, she created a plaster mold of that sculpture and poured porcelain slip, which is a liquid clay, into that mold. Once the porcelain dried and shrank away from the mold, it was removed. The result is a hollow porcelain replica of the original sculpture.
Rath developed different glazes and glaze combinations to replicate the colors of the real-life apples. “I tried to create blushes and russets and things that would draw a human to them in the first place,” she says. After the porcelain apples were fired in a kiln, they were luminous “like apples can be when you see them on the tree and they are catching light.”
In March 2011, Rath returned to Geneva. Funded by a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, she photographed some of Susan Brown’s experiments—trees created by cross-pollinating two clones and saplings grown from those trees’ seeds. She staged a 20-by-30-foot white muslin backdrop behind each of the trees, so that she could capture their varying silhouettes. Some are tall and thin, others wide and weeping. “Within one cross, this really vast amount of genetic diversity was being shown,” says Rath.
The Pasadena Museum of California Art will be displaying Rath’s jewel-like apples and her stark photographs of wintry apple trees in “take me to the apple breeder,” a new exhibition opening October 28.
You may never look at an apple the same way again.