Arts and Science. An Inspiring Cooperation.

We built an inspiring cooperation with the artists participating in the joint project “not invented by nature” by the DKFZ, the Heidelberg University, the Heidelberger Life Science Lab as well as the Bauhaus University Weimar. One may ask what art and synthetic biology have in common. To answer this question is the very aim of this cooperation. The visiting artists were introduced to basic methods in synthetic biology such as working with bacteria and mammalian cells, cloning DNA, protein expression and analytical evaluation of their results by e.g. microscopy and gel-electrophoresis. After an introductory lab-course, they plan to work in our lab, gain experiences and work on their exhibits. Discussion rounds and mutual presentations accompany this collaboration.

We thank the international group of artists, participating in this project: Howard Boland, Joanna Hoffmann-Dietrich, Ji Hyun Park and Miguel Santos for their philosophical and creative input and a completely new point of view on synthetic biology which itself can be regarded as artistic: Out of existing small pieces, one creates something synthetic, thus entirely new. This would also implicate that in every project in synthetic biology one can find a piece of its scientific creator, which is, after all, a soothing thought.

Read about Joanna Hoffmann-Dietrich's experience and adaptation of our project:

NRPSs & The Philosophers’ Stone

The project calls attention to ecological and environmental issues. On one hand, it refers to the need of exploitation of natural resources, on the other hand, it underlines the growing problem of technological waste. Advances in synthetic biology depend on technology and it is important that young scientists reflect on this problem. Environmental and ecological aspects of the project surely prove a wider and interdisciplinary way of thinking. One can also point out that the recycled gold may help scientists to finance their research, which in the time of the economic crisis might be worth considering.

As an artist, I have been especially attracted by the project’s cultural and social contexts. The title of the project “Philosophers’ Stone” not only comprises the idea of changing something of no value (in this case the electronic waste) to something of a big value (gold). It refers to the ever-lasting human endeavors to comprehend the nature and to the tradition in which knowledge (guiding to wisdom) was the highest value. The intersection of contemporary scientific practices and their reach cultural contexts became the inspiration for my artistic work.

Indeed, philosophers’ stone (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is mostly associated with the legendary alchemic substance used for the transmutation of base metals into precious stones: gold or silver. However, for alchemists, the human greed was not the ground for their research. The Greek alchemist, Zosimos qualified the philosophers’ stone as xerion (Arabic. El Iksir, Latin. Elixir). Apart of transmutation, it was supposed to heal all forms of diseases, prolong life, secure agelessness and even immortality. Thus the philosophers’ stone expressed the deepest human desires to control and gain power over natural processes and, ultimately, to conquer the death.

In many interpretations however, the philosophers’ stone was not a real substance but a metaphor for enlightenment (full comprehension) and knowledge. The search for “Philosopher’s Stone” was in fact the search for the deeper knowledge and its power. It is worth to underline that lapis philosophorium was not considered as the possession or achievement of a singular scholar but a shared property of those who “love wisdom”.

Sharing ideas, experience and knowledge is one of the main objectives of the iGEM competition.

The artistic Project

My “Philosophers’ Stone” is a 3D stereoscopic narrative. In this case, looking through binoculars of a virtual microscope we do not see bacterium D. acidovorans or E. coli, just as we cannot see molecular processes like synthetases or chelation. Instead we see a cloud of points – pixels of data. Gradually we can recognize a model of Delftibactine (NRP) in the middle of the cloud. Thus, the isolated peptide suggests to be a part of some larger spatial system. This spatial formation is not static but animated be the movement of water, the metaphor for life. Slowly it changes into a precious and desired gold, a symbol of immortality, excellence, the highest value and beauty. However, the stone turns out to be made of notes, records and drawings accompanying the experimental phase of the scientific project. Slowly, the solid form diffuses itself into particles: dispersed carriers or seeds of information….

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