Colonies

Cancer cells as an art form? "Colonies," the new bio art collaboration between artist Vik Muniz and MIT synthetic biologist Tal Danino, features striking images produced from microscopic photos of bacteria, cells infected with viruses, and cancer cells.

The Colonies series is a collaboration with artist Vik Muniz. The series began when I met Vik at MIT and we started thinking about how you could make interesting art out of bacteria and cancer cells.  Vik is well-known for creating art out of unusual materials, with one of his projects documented in the academy-award nominated film Waste Land.  For our collaboration, we developed techniques to 'paint' really small images out of living, biological materials like bacteria and cells. What came out is a unique blend of science, technology, and art that explores the intersection of current research directions and personal experiences as a scientist. 

The MIT Visiting Artists Program brings internationally acclaimed artists to engage with MIT's creative community in ways that are mutually enlightening for the artists and faculty, students and research staff at the Institute.

The Colonies series was recently profiled by The Creators Project, with the video posted below and a blog post that can be found here.  The Colonies series has been shown at the Armory Show (NYC), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Tel Aviv, Israel), Nara Roesler Gallery (Sao Paulo, Brazil), and Nichido Contemporary Art (Tokyo, Japan). A zoomable image of Liver Cell Pattern 1 is available on Artsy. For more coverage on Colonies and art-science projects at MIT see the video below from the MIT Visiting Artists Program and as well as an article by MIT Art, Science and Technology.  The series was also featured as part of the Art of Saving a Life campaign from the Gates Foundation and featured in the New York Times, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

From left to right:  Liver Cell Pattern 1, HeLa Pattern 1, Flowers Vaccinia, Stem Cells (iPS) Motherboard, iPS Cells Pattern 3, Dengue Pattern 12, Art of Saving a Life Flowers Vaccinia, Liver Cell Crowd

Liver Cell Pattern 1.  The study of cancer relies on the understanding of how healthy and diseased cells function in our bodies. Here, healthy liver cells (primary rat hepatocytes) and cancer cells (below HeLa cells, cervical cancer) are transformed into images using micropatterning techniques. To make these images, a silicon stamp of the image was created, using photolithography, in a clean room facility at MIT. This stamp was placed on a dish coated with collagen, a molecule known to stick to cells, and plasma was used to ablate the collagen except where the stamp is not present. Cells were then added to the culture dish and washed several times, resulting in an image with an approximate size of one centimeter and features on the order of the size of cells (10 um) that are imaged on a microscope.

Liver Cell Pattern 1.  The study of cancer relies on the understanding of how healthy and diseased cells function in our bodies. Here, healthy liver cells (primary rat hepatocytes) and cancer cells (below HeLa cells, cervical cancer) are transformed into images using micropatterning techniques. To make these images, a silicon stamp of the image was created, using photolithography, in a clean room facility at MIT. This stamp was placed on a dish coated with collagen, a molecule known to stick to cells, and plasma was used to ablate the collagen except where the stamp is not present. Cells were then added to the culture dish and washed several times, resulting in an image with an approximate size of one centimeter and features on the order of the size of cells (10 um) that are imaged on a microscope.

A zoomed-in image of the above Liver Cell Pattern 1.

A zoomed-in image of the above Liver Cell Pattern 1.

Cancer

Colonies is a project that visually communicates many of the scientific research directions I have worked on.  Parallel to telling the scientific storyline, the Colonies series is also an exploration of the relationship that scientists have with the 'living' materials we work with.  The relationship we have with cancer is complex in that in the everyday world, cancer is one of the worst words we can think of.  It is a word we automatically associate with death and a topic that we avoid talking about.  Many of us have a strong emotional reaction to cancer, knowing someone who has or had cancer. But as scientists we find cancer cells to be fascinating, complex, and dynamic organisms and when we work with cancer cells, we want our cancer cells to be healthy and 'happy' for our experiments to work.  The worst situation for us scientists us when our cancer cells die.  The Colonies series helps bring viewers closer to seeing what cancer really is from multiple perspectives and brings awareness to cancer-related issues.  

Below is a pattern made up of HeLa cells, the oldest and most commonly used cell line from research taken from a cervical cancer patient (Henrietta Lacks) in the 1950's.

                             HeLa cell Pattern 1 

                             HeLa cell Pattern 1 

Timelapse microscopy video of cancer cells over a 24 hour period. 10x magnification. tal.mit.edu

A portion of the proceeds from the Colonies series will be donated to cancer research.  To find out more about prints for sale contact Vik Muniz's studio for relevant information.  Please feel free to contact me with any other inquiries including appropriate image credits for the photos above.