Winged Pigs, Art Deco Bacteria, and a Frog Leg Flying Machine: BioArt Creates Strange Bedfellows

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

April 6, 2001 -- At first glance, science and art appear to revolve in separate universes. In fact, if you were to ask, most scientists and artists would say that their disciplines have little in common -- or so it would seem. But look a little harder, and the two vocations may not be that different at all. Both scientists and artists make a living (or not) at creating reality from abstract ideas. And some say that by combining the art studio and the science lab -- in an emerging field called "bioart" -- a greater understanding of both areas may result.

Some scientists and artists in such far-flung places as Boston, western Australia, and Dallas, believe this is true. But when you let art into the world of biomedicine, critics argue that you could be opening a Pandora's box.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, two artists are working in the laboratories of two prominent biologists. Across the river at Massachusetts General Hospital, two artists are creating "semi-living" sculptures in an area where scientists use bioengineering to make organs that might someday be used for human transplants.

How close are the lines of artistic and scientific discovery -- and should those lines be blurred? Is using biomedical techniques as a medium for art an avenue that could release frightening, unregulated creatures? Scientific exploration is closely monitored, but art is not known for restraint.

Bioethicist Fred Grinnell, PhD, says that artists and scientists look at the world through their own perspectives.

"There is a long tradition of scientists looking at science as artists," says Grinnell, director of the program in ethics in science and medicine and a cell biology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He adds that it makes a lot of sense for the two to work together because they both "try to see the world in new ways. Both are looking for ways to discover the world."

That seems to be the vision of renegade artists who have courageously taken their creativity into both MIT and Massachusetts General -- two of the bastions of serious biomedical research. Joe Davis, possibly the first artist to use the scientific laboratory as his canvas, did so at the suggestion of National Medal of Science winner Alexander Rich, an MIT biophysicist and biochemist.

Their joint endeavor has led to results that, at times, seem either peculiar and pointless or imaginative and promising. It was in Rich's lab that Davis learned how to manipulate genes, even going so far as getting DNA to spell out words in the bacteria E. coli. He has also created an audio microscope that changes light reflected off microorganisms into sound. One of his latest schemes is to create detached frog legs that will power a flying machine.

The explanation of this seems a bit farfetched, but the purpose, says Davis, is to do something that hasn't been done before and to try to duplicate machines that nature produces. He says that to him, the lines between science and art are blurred, as are the ones between life and death.

Also at MIT, not far from Davis, is Adam Zaretsky. The Art Institute of Chicago graduate is playing Engelbert Humperdinck to bacteria. Though this may seem like a frivolous pursuit, researchers say that it may have some use: The music may help the bacteria make more of a particular antibiotic, which they were bred to produce. This could be an inexpensive way to manufacture the drug.

A pair of artists can be found in the lab of famed Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General scientist Joseph Vacanti, MD. The New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council is supporting their year-long fellowship, which was just recently completed. The artists will now go to a lab down under: the department of anatomy and human biology at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

Australian artists Oron Catts and his wife, Ionat Zurr, are working on a project that would have most scientists scratching their heads. They are hoping to create the first pig wings. No, it won't quite make the old saying, "when pigs fly" a reality. Rather, it will involve creating a wing-like structure using primitive stem cells from pig bone marrow.

This seemingly bizarre project is an extension of the very promising "semi-living" sculptures that these artists are creating using similar bioengineered tissue that is then placed over structures made of synthetic materials. Through this, they are actually teaching scientists a great deal about how to coax these delicate cells to become useful tissue and organs that live long enough to be used for transplantation.

Not only that, but these inventive artist/scientists have made sculptures in the shapes of dinosaur, bat, and bird wings. But even more impressive, their unusual art project has oddly contributed to the development of a process that is allowing scientists to grow new spinal cord cells in goldfish. This technique, say experts, could one day play a part in finding ways to reverse paralysis in humans.

Though Catts would never call what they do biomedical research, he does believe that the artistic endeavor in the laboratories adds something to the science. "The way we work is rarely reproducible. But we can show them a different way to do it," he says. "We are giving them a new perspective; we're providing an alternative approach. We're adding new energies to the lab, and we're gaining lots of knowledge."

At the same time, they are looking for ways to make these cells survive -- a dilemma for scientists in the effort to discover methods to generate body parts to replace diseased ones. Catts says some of the tissue they have grown has survived for six months on a sculpture, although this research is preliminary and the cells are from tumors. Though such cells are great for many types of research, they obviously aren't something that can be used to grow a new liver or heart.

Now the artists are looking for a way to make a bioreactor that will keep cells alive on the sculptures outside of the lab. When they have shown their creations anywhere else previously, they had to set up a tissue lab in a gallery.

So is this art or science? And should nonscientist artists be dabbling in creating organisms or manipulating them?

"If I was a scientist I probably couldn't do many of the things I do," MIT's Davis admits. But by not using the same techniques and materials that scientists know about, the artists may give the scientists a fresh approach to their work.

Grinnell urges caution in this creative collaboration. Although he thinks that the melding of biomedical research and art is "neat," he points out that scientists must get many layers of approvals before they put their thoughts into practice in the lab.

"The question is one for all of modern genetics," he says, "What regulations are needed to prevent people from having a negative impact on the natural environment?"

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