The living world has always served as an inspiration to artists, from quiet landscapes and expressive skies to color theory and composition. But it is rare to find the living world interact so literally with art–a genetically engineered organism serving as both the medium and the message of a work. Now, scientists at NYU Langone’s Institute for Systems Genetics are exploring a new technique: growing yeast in beautiful arrangements, an effect and process they call “biopointillism.”
Like pointillism, which uses clusters of tiny dots to form an image–think Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte–biopointillism uses tiny specs of living matter to grow an image, in this case yeast cells. After genetically modifying the cells to express different colors, tens of thousands of tiny droplets containing the yeast are fired onto agar plates and left to grow in an incubator. The image grows over several days.
While interesting as an art project, the underlying science is part of a larger, international research effort to understand and artificially construct the yeast genome. By understanding the genetics of a commonly used organism like yeast, scientists can eventually design useful applications with greater precision. That might include specialty wines and beers, with designer yeast used during the fermentation process to create distinct flavors. And it can mean a new family of medicines and chemicals in the longer term: Artemisinin, for instance, is an anti-malarial drug, which can now be cheaply developed via an engineered strain of yeast. As our understanding of genetics expands, so do the opportunities to address global challenges.
As far as art goes, scientists in the Boeke Lab at NYU hope to use a wider range of colors since “painting” with yeast isn’t exactly the same as painting. The colors and their ranges are determined by the genetics, which are subject to different rules. Red is easy to create. Orange and yellow are a little trickier. Purple is difficult. And as of yet, some colors can’t be expressed in yeast at all–green for example–because the correct proteins and expression pathways have not been identified and engineered; it’s hard to be a great painter with such a limited palette.
Artistic merit aside, the biopointillism initiative is designed to make scientific research accessible to the public, a dialogue biologists often approach with caution due to misunderstandings. It was not too long ago that a misunderstanding of recombinant DNA threatened to shut down genetics research at a critical junction–research which has since led to innumerable medical advancements.
So scientists are finding new ways to interact with the public. When a member of the public can hold a piece of art that’s also a genetically modified organism engineered in a lab, they can better imagine the possibilities that extend far beyond bioart. And, at the same time, develop an appreciation for just how far our modern understanding of genetics has to go.