Scientists use a transparent roundworm called C elegans in their experiments to try and understand life and development. The worm normally crawls in a straight line. Tinker with a bit of its DNA or one of its genes and it goes round and round instead of crawling in a straight line.
Artist Yashas Shetty (36), who works on science as a medium, says, “This is not just a worm. It illustrates the ability to manipulate life itself. One could be in charge of creating new forms of life.” The enormity of the thought troubles Yashas and Mukund Thattai (37), a scientist with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore.
Yashas has worked in Mukund’s lab as an artist in residence for three years now. Most scientists working on synthetic biology use genes from one organism in another. Mukund and Yashas both have concerns about letting the process of synthetic biology run riot in the world.
Synthetic biology has been made easy by DNA sequences called BioBricks that can be purchased easily by anyone. Like Lego blocks they can be put together to build a synthetic organism. Yashas is one of the first artists in India to be working on synthetic biology. “This technology gives an ability to manipulate life in a way you want,” he says, “and that is scary.”
But the same technology can be used to serve public interest. “More people should have access to biotechnology. Then genetic manipulations will be more out in the open and understood by all,” says Noah Most, who is from Grinnell College in Iowa, US. Noah is on a Thomas J Watson Fellowship for Do It Yourself (DIY) biology in Yashas’s lab to observe his work and methods. Organisations such as the US-based BioBricks Foundation want to ensure that engineering of biology is conducted in an open and ethical manner to benefit all people and the planet.
Yashas is also trying to democratise the concept of a lab itself.
“Let us have the lab as a more of a public space like a people’s lab that is accessible to all.”
Yashas and Mukund attended Hacteria 2014 this April in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Hackteria is a web platform that brings together various open source bioart projects, led since February 2009 by award-winning artists Andy Gracie, Marc Dusseiller and Yashas Shetty. It is a space shared by international and local artists, hackers, activists, scientists, and designers who work on transdisciplinary areas in BioArt, DIY biology etc.
In Indonesia this year, Yashas and Mukund presented their Bioreporter—how to carry a lab in a bag that will teach simpler methods to identy genetically modified organisms.
A group of people in the world are trying to blur the lines between science and art and the way science and art is practised. Yashas says, “In the early days, this is how it was, the distinction between science and the arts was not this fine. Now with specialisations and sub specialisations, the distinctions have become more pronounced.”
Yet, we have a recent paper in science telling us that the area of the brain responsible for producing art is also responsible for mathematical abilities. Yashas says, “In maths, they use terms such as elegant to describe the beauty of the work. So, it may be true.”
Yashas is inspired by aerospace scientist Frank Malina. He says, “Frank Malina and Jack Parsons, graduates at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), wanted to make rockets in 1935. They would make crude rockets and came to be known as the Suicide Squad because of their dangerous experiments.” Eventually, the remote area away from Caltech became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Malina became its first director.
Yashas has studied music and computer science in Berkeley. He teaches at the Srishti School for Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. “Art and technology are closer than art and science,” he says.
His earlier work, presented at Dublin in November 2013, includes taking a slice of DNA responsible for a chemical called as Geosmin that smells of the first rains in summer from a class of bacteria that produce it and putting it into another class called as E coli. So now you also have E coli smelling of rains.
In 2009, Yashas and his team comprising young students of Srishti had presented this work at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at Cambridge, Massachusetts , USA, and won the prize for best presentation.
They also exhibited the C elegans worm that went round and round instead of crawling straight at another exhibition. “Kids were fascinated with the idea of manipulating life,”says Yashas.
Prakrithy Pradeep, a former student of Yashas and a fourth year student of Srishti, says, “Sci-Art is a necessity as science is a necessity and art gives it a perspective.”