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Science as Art Unites Disciplines

Artists use microbiology as a medium for art

By Zareena Hussain

They are a community of two; artists whose medium is the science of molecular biology. With projects that range from seeing how E. coli respond to jazz to trying to put a map of the Milky Way into the ear of a transgenic mouse, apprentice Andrew Zaretsky and unofficial mentor Joe Davis have found their niche in one of the world’s most prestigious centers for biological research, the laboratories at MIT.

For both, their work in biology is a labor of love, or more precisely obsession. While there are a handful of area artists who use their incomes as research technicians to support separate and distinct careers as artists, Zaretsky and Davis are among a proud few for whom their art is science and their science, art. Neither Davis nor Zaretsky are supported by the MIT Biology Department. For instance, Zaretsky, a Master of Fine Arts graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, supports his work as a bioartist by teaching classes in digital imaging.

To neither is their choice to leap into the world of science a sacrifice. “There are so many things going on in genetics right now that are better than most art,” says Zaretsky, “green mice, plants with luciferase, antennapedia. I think sometimes I should give scientists art awards.”

Zaretsky followed Davis here to Cambridge this year after being inspired by one of Davis’ talks in Chicago. (Davis is on somewhat of a personal crusade to bring more artists into the fold of modern biology.)

Bacterial appreciation of music

Zaretsky now spends his days learning the rudiments of modern biology, not only from his research advisor Professor of Biology Arnold S. Demain but also through coursework in Introductory Biology (7.02), a class populated for the most part by biology sophomores and pre-meds rather than artists. His work in lab involves assessing the effect of different frequency sound waves on E. coli. Sometimes, he even plays jazz for them.

What’s more, Zaretsky’s project is not too far afield from the work of the Demain lab, which concerns itself more with microbiology and the production of secondary metabolites such as antibiotics by bacteria. If the sound waves prove stressful to the bacteria, the stress might result in increased production of antibiotics, according to Zaretsky.

However, Zaretsky freely admits that most of his equipment has come out of the dumpster and that his results to date have been less than fantastic. For him what is interesting at this stage in his burgeoning career, is how he as an artist finds his place in the straight-laced world of modern science.

Developing role of scientific artists

“The process is hugely meticulous,” says Zaretksy, “There is incredible rigor.” By contrast, “Artists are taught to be walking singularities, scientists are focused on repeatability,” Zaretsky says.

But despite these challenges, Zaretsky sees his work as the future. “Molecular biology has invaded popular culture.” Despite a new focus on bioethics, “There are other factors shaping [science] than just clergy and government,” Zaretsky says. In this situation, “Artists can be visionaries.”

He realizes his goals for the future are not completely without challenge. “I’d like to be a Jack-of-All-Trades. The world is too specialized for a true renaissance man to exist. So what I’ve decided is I’ll be a nine of all trades,” Zaretsky says.

Davis, by contrast, is a ten-year veteran of the lab of Professor of Biology Alex Rich, and a twenty-year veteran of the Institute. To match that experience, he has a mind-numbing amount of projects going, almost too numerous to count.

His latest idea is to put a map of the galaxy in the ear of a mouse, inspired in this project by a children’s story an ex-girlfriend wrote eight years ago. He has taken the map of the Milky Way and reduced that information to sequence of 3,867 DNA base pairs. He has an agreement with Millenium Pharmaceuticals to synthesize the DNA sequence in 100 base pair chunks.

But his endeavors are limitless, and their only common thread seem to be how they are designed to break the mold. In the warm room of the Rich laboratory, Davis has his set of ‘primordial’ clocks, his own test of theory that life spontaneously self-assembled. To Davis, if life could assemble from simple molecules, so could clocks, a much simpler system.

To support his artistic endeavors in molecular biology, Davis has made a microscope that can “hear” bacteria by translating the light information into sound.

Previously, he was involved with Microvenus, a project in protest of the censorship of radio messages sent into deep space. Davis’ idea is to put the human genome into a hardy strain of bacteria and send it into deep space.

“The spores of B. subtilis can last indefinitely” in deep space, according to Davis.

So far he has coded information of vaginal contractions, in protest of what he calls the “man and Barbie” version of humanity sent by radio messages into deep space.

Davis, evidently a committed believer in extraterrestrial life adds, “And they wonder why they come and experiment on our sex organs.”

To boot, Davis is an accomplished artist in the traditional sense. His sculptures dot the lounges of the biology building, and he designed the globe sculpture that forms the center of Kendall Square. Before settling in the Alex Rich lab, Davis bounced around biology laboratories between Harvard and MIT and was an affiliate with the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

Run-in with police leads to new art

“They hired me two minutes after the police left,” says Davis cryptically of his involvement with CAVS.

A proposal of his to send an electron-gun into space had been accepted by NASA and Davis says he found himself the only artist in a world of scientists and engineers. “There I was representing all of the arts,” Davis says. He knew CAVS had been rejected several times by NASA on the basis ‘practical benefit’ and knew that he would want to bring them into the loop of his project.

“I just showed up,” Davis says. The center told him the director couldn’t meet him for the next six months and that he could come back then. Davis, then a mechanic from the South, said “There was no way I was going to come back up here.”

“They told me, ‘If you don’t leave, we are going to call the police’.” However within the response time of the authorities, Davis was able to convince CAVS he was worth keeping around.

Peers enjoy unique perspective

For the people who work side-by-side with these ‘artists-in-residence,’ their presence in the laboratory is at first bewildering but altogether welcome.

Ethan Ford G, a graduate student in the neighboring Guarente Lab, says “I think it’s cool. Science is really an art. We approach it from different directions, but the philosophical outcome is the same.”

Bernie Brown G, a postdoctoral associate in the Rich lab admitted, “the first thing I guess occurred to me is ‘Who is this guy? Why is he here?’” Brown adds however that Davis is a welcome addition, “Joe is a very bright guy, his art reflects that.”

And while the future of artists in the biology laboratories or genaesthetists as Brown terms them is not altogether certain, Davis keeps his vision.

“We would like to expand our community. We think it is an important one,” Davis says.