Daydreaming: living art

We're both biologists with a slant towards being artists. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, our passion to share the happenings in biotech through art and design was uncovered around 2002 but not fully put into practice til 2008. Before bio-art, we moonlighted as founders of a fashion endeavor and a wakeboard company. Our day jobs were as a Research Scientist for Maryann and I flitted along from bench scientist to salesman to business development and marketing.

In 2008-09, I co-founded a DNA art company called Yonder Biology. Yonder collected DNA from people using a cheek swab and gave them their DNA selfie in return in the form of an art piece they could hang on the wall. Each DNA portrait was unique to the individual based on short tandem repeats (see FBI forensics for identifying an individual) and a few fun genes like amelogenin which showed XX or XY chromosomes.

Around 2012, I learned of the first ever public exhibition for the human genome set to take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History the next year. I put my “sales hat” on and figured out all the players involved in the project. Within a few months of learning about the project, Yonder was commissioned to create a digital DNA art piece for the event which was titled Genome: Unlocking Life's Code. In collaboration with Max Nanis, we produced A Complete Genome in Time which was displayed in 2013 in the Smithsonian.

Around this same time, I was asked a question that would change the trajectory of my work (my life really). The man said to me, “Andy, your DNA art is cool but what would living art look like?” The question set off an obsession. Everywhere I looked Nature was displaying her brilliance and artistry. Even in my bathtub… I managed to distill the question down to another, which I started asking myself to weed out my good ideas from bad: “What can biology do that chemistry can’t?”

What can biology do that chemistry can’t?

In my estimation, biology is alive. It can grow, evolve and renew itself with the right resources as well as respond to stimuli.

In 2011, Maryann and I experienced our first oceanic bioluminescent event. It was a red tide in San Diego. At night, the waves crashed and lit up the shoreline with an electric blue glow. I became fascinated. After some googling, I found Sunnyside Seafarms in Santa Barbara run by the late Bruce Harger, who became a mentor. I ordered my first dinoflagellates from Bruce in 2011. I received 3 square, plastic pouches of dinoflagellates within a few days (~150mL total). I shook them in a dark room as soon as they arrived and saw nothing. Then, I read the instructions and learned that they would only light up at night and might need a few days to recover from their USPS journey to my home (albeit a short one from Santa Barbara to San Diego). Later that night, I got what I was looking for. Bioluminescence!

My answer to the question. The first one the man asked. “What does living art look like?” It’s a living light that would illuminate an intimate dining experience.

I started growing the dinoflagellates intently on getting enough volume to light up the lamp that I was making. This is when I tapped Bruce to become my mentor. Whether he was complicit or not, I saw him as my mentor. It was hard to extract information from him. What kind of lighting is best for the dinos’ growth? What’s the right brightness? How much light versus dark? How do you feed the dinoflagellates? What’s the best temperature? How do you prevent contamination with unwanted guests in the dino culture?  Bruce finally opened up after 4 or 5 phone calls. He welcomed me to his lab in Santa Barbara and showed me how he cultured the dinos. 

I managed to get about 3 liters growing in water bottles from my initial ~150mL that I ordered. I would show my friends that would come by. They were fascinated when they saw the beautiful blue glow. They would ask: “Why does it glow? How does it glow? Where do you get it?” Unfortunately, as my dino volume was getting larger, I went out of town for the weekend and left the bottles in the window during a random hot spell in San Diego (Santa Ana winds). My poor dinos perished and I was devastated. I called Bruce. This time I ordered a liter and started growing the volume back up again. I grew ~4 liters finally and it was time to test out my bio light idea.

I crafted the bio light filament from beer line tubing and used a random acrylic globe that was sitting around in our office space. I hung the bio light from the ceiling and made a perch for the dinoflagellates to sit in their container high above the globe. I fished the tubing into the dino container above and into an empty jug on the floor. I used black electrical tape on the areas of the tubing I didn’t want illuminated. We turned out the fluorescent lights in the room and began to suck (like siphon the dinos from their perch above so that they would flow through the tubing and illuminate in the spiral element I spun together and empty out into the jug on the floor. While all this was happening, I grabbed my camera to document what living art looked like.

Living Art // Bio light by Andy Bass

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