So whilst Fringes Catalyst, Svenja Kratz, travels Northern Europe expanding her bio-arts practice and research, I am continuing to develop the My Cells music video project. Scientist Annette Spierings, and I will be working at IHBI (Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation) next Monday to harvest another range of skin and blood cells for propagation. The initial cell propagation involved pulling out about 100-200 hairs from the root around the hairline (thanks Svenja for stepping in there…)
Initial cell propagation at the IHBI labs
As hair growth slows with hair length, the skin cells from hair follicles of shorter hair are more viable than longer hair. My hair is relatively long, resulting in weaker cell growth; Svenja’s hair is cropped short and had remarkably higher cell division with her earlier propagations. Next Monday we will be propagating new batches of cells for imaging for the final cut of the My Cells music video. By keying the green screen (see more on the green screen shoot here) the footage of the cell propagation is incorporated into the music video. I will post an excerpt of the video shortly, as I edited the clip for its preview at The Edge Sound Select live event.
During my stint as Fringes Catalyst, I am working on a series of new installation works for display in the main foyer area. The two primary areas of investigation are botany and consumer/everyday genetics. As part of my look into consumer genetics and the connections between family and genetic inheritance, I am planning to create an installation incorporating mummified lamb hearts. The lamb hearts function as a symbol for love, connection and sacrifice. They will be used to make links between three generations of women within my family.
While I have had some previous experience with mummification, this project (apart from conceptual concerns) also presents a great opportunity to experiment with different mummification strategies and will help refine my mummification recipe.
A Shrine for Algernon: The Remains of Algernon and the Poetry Orchids – mummified fetal calf sculpture with living orchid.
The first three hearts have been in salt solution for four weeks now and the flesh is very nice and solid.
Removing hearts from salt compound.
Mummified heart – post salt compound.
Heart after washing off the salt compound.
The fat still contains some moisture, so they will still need further processing before being able to be incorporated into an artwork. To aid the further preservation of the hearts, I am soaking them in taxidermy tanning formula for three days. Following this process, I will put the hearts into the oven for final fixing and to remove moisture again. I am also thinking about placing the hearts in bleach. This should produce beautiful white specimens that could form a base for printing images.
The DNA jewellery workshop is going ahead again this weekend. This workshop will show participants how to extract DNA from different materials using common household materials including salt, detergent and rubbing alcohol. The workshop will also include an overview of key terms and some interesting info about DNA — paticularly how little we still know about the complex interconnections between genes, heredity and environment. So not only will participants gain knowledge, they will also walk away with a DNA jewellery piece.
Our jewellery supplies arrived this week and we are super excited about offering a few different options for people. Participants will now be able to choose from two necklace designs but there is also a pretty darn snazzy key ring option for anyone less inclined towards jewellery.
At present the workshop is sold out, but if there is enough interest, we will most likely run it again in the near future. You can also add your name to the waiting list and The Edge will contact you if a place becomes available.
In response to the little unexpected infestations that have occurred in the basement since starting my project, I have decided to produce a work that comments on the unanticipated discoveries that often occur when working with living organisms. Tentatively titled, A Cabinet for Unexpected Life, the work will most likely consist of a furniture installation incorporating documentation of the mould contamination that spread through the kombucha and into my plant cultures, as well as living cultures of pond life and fruit flies.
In preparation for the development of this work, I have started to set up some actual fruit fly cultures. The initial fruit fly colony established itself in some minced beetroot I was using to produce plant paints. They were really thriving for a while, but I have decided to select a more established medium to maintain them.
After trawling the web for ideas, I have made up two preliminary types of fly food based on recipes from The Bug Farm :
2 x bananas, 2 x cup rolled oats, 1 cup water, 2tbsp vinegar (to reduce mould growth), 1 tbsp sugar and a pinch of yeast
6 x tbsp instant mash, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 x pinch of yeast
I will add more information about the success of each recipe. Let’s hope the flies like their new food.
As part of my project at The Edge which continues my engagement across Art, Science and Technology, I am seizing the opportunity to learn more about genetics, particularly consumer genetics and the rising services that promise to reveal insights into what makes you, you. Consequently, I have decided to have my DNA analysed by the US company 23andme.
23andme website screenshot.
While I have been aware of the existance of companies like 23andme for some time, Lone Frank’s book My Beautiful Genome re-sparked my interest in the topic. For only $99, the company claims to “empower you to better manage your health and wellness” and offers “over 200 personalized health & traits reports”, as well as access to the “largest genealogical DNA database in the world”.
I must admit that I am skeptical as to how taking part in genetic testing will empower me to manage my health, given my understanding that genes are only part of the story. Indeed, the functioning of genes (i.e. switching on and off) is determined on a micro and macro scale by a number of factors such as hormones and environment. As Matt Ridley comments from his book Nature via Nuture:
The truth is that nobody is in charge. It is the hardest thing for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate cleverly designed and interconnected systems that do not have control centres […] It is the same with the body. You are not a brain running a body by switching hormones. Nor are you a body running a genome by switching on hormone receptors. Nor are you a genome running a brain by switching on genes that switch on hormones. You are all of these at once (1999, p.151).
So, while I don’t think gene testing is the answer, it is difficult to anticipate how I might react if the test identifies me as having an increased risk for a particular disease/condition. Will increased risk be something I will even share publically? At this point, I think I am most comfortable sharing ancestry info. In any case, it all remains to be seen. Expect an update soon!
In anticipation of our upcoming Slime Mould Maze Madness Workshop, we have imported a new Edge pet. S(he) is growing really well and seems to be enjoying the delicious rolled oats. We have finally received our lab agar, so I will be plating out additional cultures today.
Slimey the mould.
With our ongoing contamination issue in the basement, I think I will sub-culture ye olde Slimey in Lab 2 upstairs.
Well…a lot has happened over the last few weeks. I have officially set up camp in the pretty well decked out basement space, complete with microscope bench, non-food fridge, microwave and plant culture area. The great (or frustrating, depending on your perspective) thing about biology is that you often get unexpected results and infestations. Some are pretty cool, while others are rather annoying and can really hinder your progress. One of the cool ones is the recent discovery of algae, bacteria and protists that I may have brought in on some plant cuttings and roots from home. I discovered them when the base of my beaker in the lab space started to become increasingly green.
Some unexpected life discovered in a beaker of plant cuttings at The Edge.
While I am certainly not an expert in this area, I think we are dealing with chorella algae, as they certainly look the part. The algae in the beaker are single celled and non-motile, both characteristics of this particular type of algae. Chorella is also a common pond ‘scum’ in Australia, so it is certainly possible that they hitched a lift to The Edge on the roots of some of the plants I brought in. If they are chorella, then I am pretty happy as this means that this miniature pond is pretty safe. Indeed, chorella has even been labelled a potenial ‘superfood’ and future nutrient source. The other organisms that populate this little micro-world are more difficult to identify. If anyone has any ideas….please let us know…
Some other unexpected visitors include these little red-eyed Drosophila (fruit fly). A fruit fly must have laid eggs into some of my plant ‘sludge’ that I was using to experiment with making paint from plant materials. A few weeks later, and we have a thriving little community of flies. A lesson for me to be more careful with my material preparation and storage!
A jar of fruit flies.
While we humans may not be the biggest fans of flies in general, we really should be pretty grateful to the humble fruit fly. They have been used as a model organism for many years and have taught us a lot about genetics and inheritance. The ones we have in the basement are the wild type, characterised by red eyes with black rings on their abdomen.
Little fruit fly with visible red eyes.
While the pond life and fruit flies were not entirely unwelcome guests, the recurring bacterial, mould and fungal colonies from the initial kombucha contamination are. They unfortunately seem to have taken hold, despite numerous rigorous cleaning and sterilising days.
From my IHBI days, I recall that once a fungal infection has ocurred, it is notoriously difficult to erradicate. When we had a fungal outbreak in the primary lab a few years ago, the entire room had to be fumigated and all samples discarded, to ensure permanent erradication.
While they are killing many of my plant culture experiments before they get started, they are still quite spectacular, expecially when observed under the microscope.
These unanticipated guests have prompted me to consider making an artwork that engages with such unexpected outcomes and visitors 🙂 As such, I am planning to culture the fruit flies and pond life. I will just stick to documenting the contamination though!
I decided to have a look at my cheek cells and spit under the microscope. I’ve been feeling a bit sick with flu, so I was interested to see if there is any difference from previous viewings and also to look for bacterial presence. I was shocked to see crazy fungus contamination on the slide. OMG! No wonder I’ve been feeling so terrible.
Cheek cells with weird spore clusters and fibres
I must admit, I had a bit of a freak out…but then thought about it and came to the conclusion that it was more likely that the slide was dirty or contaminated rather than myself.
Indeed, I once had SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) images taken of my skin, boogas, ear wax and menstrual fluid only to find no evidence of bacteria or other organisms!!!! I was really surprised. It was still pretty cool to see my bodily excretions this close up!
Menstral fluid blood clot
Although I was really disappointed not to find evidence of strange crawly creatures like this:
Then again….probably good that I don’t actually have scabies!
The notable absence of bacteria and other microflora was however, quite perplexing especially given that we are outnumbered by an estimated 10:1 by non-self cells in our bodies. There are a few possible reasons for the absence of bacteria and other microbes:
The samples were collected at home and processed later at Uni. This may have resulted in microbes moving on to greener pastures.
The preparation process washed surface elements from the surface of the samples. (This is probably more likely as I do not have much experience with sample processing and may have been too rough with my pipetting).
It also seems that that the majority of microbes occupy the interior spaces of our body, rather than just the surface.
Indeed, a large number of non-self cells are located in our gut. These bacteria are super important to ensure efficient nutrient processing and digestive health. I remember hearing Dr Karl talk about poo transplants (or fecal bacteriotherapy) on Triple J. Apparently, receiving a ‘reverse enema’ of poo from a healthy ‘digester’ can help individuals with chronic diarrhea and other digestive issues caused by ‘bad’ bacteria. Gross…and yet kinda cool! (I have yet to find someone who wants my poo – I do offer whenever anyone complains about stomach problems).
Anyway…after checking my cheek cells again with a clean slide, it turns out that everything is A-OK!
Nothing to worry about and no evidence of bacteria or other creepy things. (The black dots are spots on the camera lense!) My Edge colleagues can breath easy….for now…
I’ve been working with the microscope and attached camera which has been set up in the basement. To get used to taking images and test out the magnification, I took a few images of the bacterial and fungal contamination which resulted in a massive disposal of the infected yeast/bacteria kombucha colonies.
Despite contaminating the kombucha something fierce, I think the pics are still pretty darn pretty.