Sunday, May 8, 2016

Week 6

     While this week's lecture was concerned with relatively new biotechnologies, humans have been modifying nature for aesthetic purposes for hundreds years. During the 1600s, tulips became immensely popular in Holland, spurring botanists to create increasingly ornate varieties (ironically, the most prized variety of tulip, 'broken' tulips, were the result of a mosaic virus) (Raven).

An illustration of "broken" tulips.
     In another example of the public's relationship to art and biotechnology, Christopher Kelty makes reference to the outsourcing of the life sciences to the general public, allowing average citizens to carry out science in their homes. FoldIt is one such project, a video game that asks users to fold proteins into different configurations, reflecting amino acid folding rules. The game has allowed scientists to access possible protein structures more quickly than an algorithm would be able to, and has applications in medicine (FoldIt).

An example of a structure that can be created in FoldIt
     While many artists have learned how to use biotechnology in order to create art, many scientists have utilzied their specialized knowledge to artistic effect as well. In 2015, a contest was held in which scientists created art using bacterial and yeast cultures on agar plates. The living cultures were utilized as a medium by scientists, raising questions about whether or not life ought to be used as an art object. 

The winner of the Agar Art Contest. American Society for Microbiology/Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil from Massachusetts
     Ellen Levy addresses issues discerning nature from culture in the era of biotechnology. In my biochemistry lab, we inserted the GFP gene into a culture of e. coli, causing them to glow green. Why does this seem innocuous, but we raise an outcry in the case of Alba, a rabbit subject to a similar process? Is it because rabbits are more "like us?" Is it because such a process is "unnecessary?" The public reaction to these art works reflect a hierarchy of priorities, where mammals are more important than fruit flies, transgenic experiments for medical advancement more important than aesthetics. A milieu of hypocrisy and confusion cloud the field, and public opinion is increasingly swaying against genetic modification in general, despite the fact that humans have been playing with the genetics of crops for thousands of years.
     Many take concern with biotechnology-based art because it uses life arbitrarily, reflecting perhaps a deeper criticism of the arts as a non-pragmatic endeavour. While I have yet to muddle through my stance on this complex issue, I leave you with some images I took of a hawkmoth through a dissecting microscope.

"FoldIt: Solve Puzzles for Science." Foldit. Web.

Levy, Ellen K. "Defining Life: Artists Challenge Conventional Classifications." (2007).Kelty, Christopher M. "Outlaw, hackers, victorian amateurs: diagnosing public participation in the  
     life sciences
 today." Jcom 9.1 (2010): 1-8.
Palermo, Elizabeth. "Microbe Masterpieces: Scientists Create Cool Art from Bacteria." Livescience.
     22 October 2015. Web.

Raven, Sarah. "The History of the Tulip." Sarah Raven. 25 October 2014. Web.

1 comment:

  1. I love how you used so many examples of how biotechnology can be used as an art form. While I was creating my blog post, I could not think of anymore examples from the top of my head but your blog opened my eyes a bit more to realize how much more there is to art in biotechnology. I also used the rabbit experiment in my post, I found that example the most interesting to me to see how genes can be transferred into a species to create it as something beautiful.