Team:Wageningen UR/Vitruvian man


The Vitruvian man

A 'culturable' icon


The desire of the human to leave a mark after fading away was always present and Leonardo Da Vinci, a well-known polymath, was no exception. Da Vinci has provoked our imagination through his many influential works. His drawing of the Vitruvian Man, which is a cultural icon, has been reproduced everywhere, even on 1 euro coins. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Da Vinci envisioned the Vitruvian Man as a part of the cosmography of the microcosm. Our iGEM team envisages the Vitruvian Man as the blueprint of our microbiome, the symbiosis with our microbial microcosm.

With the rise of genetic engineering, doors to both understanding the past and predicting the future have been opened. Synthetic biology, like every new technology, pushes boundaries of the unknown and leaves us with a sense of precaution. The field is constantly questioning scientists, legislators, artists and philosophers as we experienced during the Science Café evening.

There is a common misconception that microbes only tend to cause deadly diseases and are not in harmony with our body. On the contrary, we carry more microbial cells than human cells in our body. National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that 90% of our body is made of non-human cells. The human gut alone contains approximately 40,000 bacterial species, 9 million unique bacterial genes and 100 trillion microbial cells. The skin is home to a virtual zoo of bacteria, says Professor Martin Blaser, Professor of Microbiology, New York University School of Medicine. We are a walking microbiome, a concept not obvious to most people.

Our aim is to depict a snapshot of the microbes present “on the human body” through the cultural icon, Vitruvian Man. We plan to do this in two ways. Firstly, by inoculating a human-sized plate and culturing the microbes. The inoculation will be done by making an imprint of a human subject, who will be spread-eagled in a Vitruvian Man pose, on a life-sized Petri dish. Besides the human-sized Vitruvian man print, smaller versions are proposed to be made on regular 15 cm plates by inoculation with metal Vitruvian Man stamps coated with microbiota, and those can be handed out. On the smaller plates we will use these stamps that are inoculated by taking swabs from various regions on the body. Coloured, chromoprotein expressing E. coli that were developed for our toolbox are spread around the shape of the Vitruvian man, thereby providing contrast and optimal illustration.

We believe that addressing ‘culture’ in the broadest sense, using a cultural icon in a culturable way, will make people rethink the importance of bacteria on our everyday lives, and will in particular increase their awareness of the close interaction we have with our microbiome.


In order to create this human-size Vitruvian man plate we had to think of alternative ways to make a huge amount of cheap agar, to create a human-sized plate, to work in a sterile fashion and to find a work place where these goals could be achieved. For the smaller Vitruvian man plates we merely needed to create a suitable stamp and to make optimal use of the E. coli expressing the chromoprotein encoding genes.


The Vitruvian man idea came up during a period in which we were looking for ways to collaborate with a less well-known fraction of the synthetic biology community: biohackers. We found a young biohacker group in Amsterdam at De Waag, a collaborative effort of biohackers and artists. We managed to get into contact with them and registered for a couple of biohacker workshops in Amsterdam. At these workshops, given by a Canadian Professor in Bioart, we learned to make our own cheap, potato-based agar, thereby solving one of our human-sized Vitruvian man plate obstacles.

First biohacker workshop: Making potato-based agar

During the second workshop we went through the city, taking swaps of different spots which would then be cultured on our home-made agar. It was nice that the De Waag community, like us through our Vitruvian man project, were also working on creating awareness of the ‘common man’ for the microbiome around us and synthetic biology. This was again shown during Science Café where Pieter van Boheemen spoke on behalve of the DIY biohacking community. Even though we have not yet made the human-sized Vitruvian man, we will still pursue this plan after the wiki-freeze. Therefore a collaboration with the De Waag community will be eligible. The current plan is to make the human-sized plate at their workshop in Amsterdam, fill it with sufficient home-made agar and have a student immortalize himself by creating the Vitruvian man imprint. In addition we want to create small Vitruvian man plates by taking a microbiome swap of the human body and spreading it over a metal stamp. The stamp is then used to imprint it on an agar plate. We furthermore create contrast by inoculating coloured bacteria around the edges of the Vitruvian man imprint.
(A) The shape of our aluminium stamp                                                     (B) Vitruvian man imprint


We see this Vitruvian man project as a creative outlet of our Human Practices part. The large and small Vitruvian man plates will, when finished, possibly be showcased at the De Waag building in Amsterdam. This would fulfill our goal of increasing public awareness of the close interaction between humans and their microbiome. Hopefully it will show the iGEM community that even though we are working in different teams on the future of synthetic biology, it is still very important to discover the many different entities linked to synthetic biology.