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 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.
February 7, 2013
Few non-scientists would be able to distinguish the E. coli
virus bacteria from the HIV virus under a microscope. Artist Luke Jerram, however, can describe in intricate detail the shapes of a slew of deadly viruses pathogens. He is intrigued by them, as a subject matter, because of their inherent irony. That is, something as virulent as SARS can actually, in its physical form, be quite delicate.
Clearly adept at scientific work—as an undergraduate, the Brit was offered a spot on a university engineering program—Jerram chose to pursue art instead. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” he told SEED magazine in a 2009 interview. “They just end up with completely different answers.”
To create a body of work he calls “Glass Microbiology,” Jerram has enlisted the help of virologist Andrew Davidson from the University of Bristol and the expertise of professional glassblowers Kim George, Brian George and Norman Veitch. Together, the cross-disciplinary team brings hazardous pathogens, such as the H1N1 virus or HIV, to light in translucent glass forms.
The artist insists that his sculptures be colorless, in contrast to the images scientists sometimes disseminate that are enhanced with bright hues. “Viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light,” says Jerram, in an email. “So the artworks are created as alternative representations of viruses to the artificially colored imagery we receive through the media.” Jerram and Davidson create sketches, which they then take to the glassblowers, to see whether the intricate structures of the diseases can be replicated in glass, at approximately one million times their original size.
These glass sculptures require extreme attention to detail. “I consult virologists at the University of Bristol about the details of each artwork,” says Jerram. “Often I’m asking a question about how a particular part of the virion looks, and they don’t know the answer. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams.”
Yet, to physically create these structures in glass, the design may have to be tweaked. Some viruses, in their true form, would simply be too delicate and wouldn’t hold up. Jerram’s representation of the H1N1 (or Swine Flu) virus, for instance, looks far spikier than it might in reality. This was done, not to add to the ferocity of the virus’ image, but to prevent the artwork from crumbling or breaking.
Jerram has to decide what to do when new research suggests different forms for the structures of viruses. “Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly,” explains the artist. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with a scientist at the University of Florida about the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.” Jerram’s art is often used in scientific journals as an alternative to colorful simulations, so being as up-to-date as possible is definitely in his best interest.
Jerram’s marvelous glass sculptures bring awareness to some of the worst killers of our age. “The pieces are made for people to contemplate the global impact of each disease,” he says. “I’m interested in sharing the tension that has arisen between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent.”
Jerram’s microbial sculptures are on display in “Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass,” an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Art and Design through April 7, 2013, and “Pulse: Art and Medicine,” opening at Strathmore Fine Art in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 16. “Pulse” runs through April 13, 2013.
Editor’s Note, February 15, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied that E. coli and malaria are viruses. They are not–E. coli is a bacteria and malaria is a malaise caused by microorganisms. Errors in the first paragraph were fixed and the title of the post was changed.
February 5, 2013
When Pupa U. P. A. Gilbert, a biophysicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her colleague Christopher E. Killian saw the scanning electron micrograph that they took of a sea urchin’s tooth, they were dumbstruck, says the journal Science. “I had never seen anything that beautiful,” Gilbert told the publication.
The individual crystals of calcite that form an urchin’s tooth are pointy, interlocking pieces; as the outermost crystals decay, others come to the surface, keeping the tooth sharp. In Photoshop, Gilbert added blues, greens and purples to the black-and-white image to differentiate the crystals. The resulting image calls to mind an eerie landscape in a Tim Burton movie.
Judges of the 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, a competition sponsored by Science and the National Science Foundation, as well as the public who voted online, were equally ecstatic about the SEM image. Enough so, in fact, that they selected the micrograph as the first place and people’s choice winner for the contest’s photography division.
The 10th annual Visualization Challenge received 215 entries across five categories—photography, illustration, posters and graphics, games and apps, and video. The submissions are judged based on visual impact, effective communication and originality.
And…drum roll, please. Here are some of the the recently announced winners:
Kai-hung Fung, a radiologist at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Hong Kong, captured this image of a clam shell (on the left) and a spiral-shaped sea snail shell (on the right) using a CT scanner. The image won honorable mention in the photography category. The multi-colored lines represent the contours in the shells. Fung told Science that he took into account “two sides of a coin” when making the image. “One side is factual information, wile the other side is artistic,” he told the journal.
Viktor Sykora, a biologist at Charles University in Prague, and researchers at the Czech Technical University submitted three miniscule (we’re talking three millimeters in diameter or less) seeds to high-resolution, high-contrast x-ray imaging (on the left) and microscopy (on the right). The above image also won honorable mention in the photography category.
Earning him first prize in the illustration category, Emmett McQuinn, a hardware engineer at IBM, created this “wiring diagram” for a new kind of computer chip, based on the neural pathways in a macaque‘s brain.
Maxime Chamberland, a computer science graduate student at the Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab in Canada, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to capture this ominous image of a brain tumor. (The tumor is the solid red mass in the left side of the brain.) Science calls the image a “road map for neurosurgeons,” in that the red fibers are hot-button fibers that, if severed, could negatively impact the patient’s everyday functions, while blue fibers are nonthreatening. The image won honorable mention and was the people’s choice winner in the contest’s illustration category.
A team of researchers (Guillermo Marin, Fernando M. Cucchietti, Mariano Vázquez, Carlos Tripiana, Guillaume Houzeaux, Ruth Arís, Pierre Lafortune and Jazmin Aguado-Sierra) at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center produced this first-place and people’s-choice winning video, “Alya Red: A Computational Heart.” The film shows Alya Red, a realistic animation of a beating human heart that the scientists designed using MRI data.
“I was literally blown away,” Michael Reddy, a judge in the contest, told Science. “After the first time I watched the video, I thought, ‘I’ve just changed the way I thought about a heart.’”
Be sure to check out the other videos below, which received honorable mention in the contest:
Fertilization, by Thomas Brown, Stephen Boyd, Ron Collins, Mary Beth Clough, Kelvin Li, Erin Frederikson, Eric Small, Walid Aziz, Hoc Kho, Daniel Brown and Nobles Green Nucleus Medical Media
Observing the Coral Symbiome Using Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy, by Christine E. Farrar, Zac H. Forsman, Ruth D. Gates, Jo-Ann C. Leong, and Robert J. Toonen, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Revealing Invisible Changes in the World, by Michael Rubinstein, Neal Wadhwa, Frédo Durand, William T. Freeman, Hao-Yu Wu, John Guttag, MIT; and Eugene Shih, Quanta Research Cambridge
For winners in the posters and graphics and games and apps categories, see the National Science Foundation’s special report on the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.
January 30, 2013
It is always interesting to watch a beatboxer perform. The artist, in the thrust of performing, can reach a compulsive fit as he musters up the rhythmic sounds of percussion instruments a cappella-style.
But what does beatboxing looking like from the inside?
That is the question that University of Southern California researchers Michael Proctor, Shrikanth Narayanan and Krishna Nayak asked in a study (PDF), slated to be published in the February issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. For the first time, they used real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging to examine the so-called “paralinguistic mechanisms” that happen in a beatboxer’s vocal tract.
For the purposes of the experiment, a 27-year-old male hip hop artist from Los Angeles demonstrated his full repertoire of beatboxing effects—sounds imitating kick drums, rim shots, hi-hats and cymbals—while lying on his back in an MRI scanner. The researchers made a total of 40 recordings, each from 20 to 40 seconds in duration and capturing single sounds, free-style sequences of sounds, rapped or sung lyrics and spoken word. They paired the audio with video stringing together the MRI scans to analyze the airflow and the movements, from the upper trachea to the man’s lips, that happened with each utterance.
“We were astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display,” Narayanan told Inside Science News Service, the first to report on the study. “This incredible vocal instrument and its many capabilities continue to amaze us, from the intricate choreography of the ‘dance of the tongue’ to the complex aerodynamics that work together to create a rich tapestry of sounds that encode not only meaning but also a wide range of emotions.”
It was a humbling experience, added Narayanan, to realize how much we have yet to learn about speech anatomy and the physical capabilities of humans when it comes to vocalization.
One of the larger goals of the study was to determine the extent to which beatbox artists use sounds already found in human languages. The researchers used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to describe the sound effects produced by their subject and then compared those effects to a comprehensive library of sounds, encompassing all human languages.
“We were very surprised to discover how closely the vocal percussion sounds resembled sounds attested in languages unknown to the beatboxer,” Michael Proctor told Wired. The hip hop artist who participated in the study spoke American English and Panamanian Spanish, and yet he unknowingly produced sounds common to other languages. The study states:
…he was able to produce a wide range of non-native consonantal sound effects, including clicks and ejectives. The effects /ŋ||/–/ŋ!/–/ŋ|/ used to emulate the sounds of specific types of snare drums and rim shots appear to be very similar to consonants attested in many African languages, including Xhosa (Bantu language family, spoken in Eastern Cape, South Africa), Khoekhoe (Khoe, Botswana) and !Xóõ (Tuu, Namibia). The ejectives /p’/ and /pf’/ used to emulate kick and snare drums shares the same major phonetic properties as the glottalic egressives used in languages as diverse as Nuxáalk (Salishan, British Columbia), Chechen (Caucasian, Chechnya), and Hausa (Chadic, Nigeria).
Going forward, the researchers would like to study a larger sample of beatboxers. They’d also like to get to the bottom of something that has been boggling audiences for decades: How do some beatboxers simultaneously layer certain instrumental sounds with hums and spoken words?