Synthetic Biology and MC Escher

MC Escher is a brilliant mid-20th century artist whose work defies logic and dances with mathematics in a beautiful way. He was inspired by natural forms and shapes and began making tessellations after seeing the mosaics in the Spanish mosque Alhambra.

These tessellations are of particular interest in mathematics as the topology of the shapes are defined in relation to another shape. These patterns can be found throughout nature and are very well represented in biology through the methods by which enzymes bind activation sites to their given substrate.

When these tessellations go 3D, then useful shapes are formed. That is the basis of all protein dynamics. Folding is mediated by functional groups attached to the polypeptide chain. If you begin to think of the chain as the center of a 3D tessellation, folding becomes an Escher-like mathematical problem.

Escher also experimented quite a bit with changing one animal into another. This undercurrent is fascinating because it is paralleled in the transgenic work of synthetic biology. By modifying the underlying genetic code, we can literally change the morphology of one species into another through the interactions of proteins on the molecular scale.

The small subunits affecting the larger whole also plays out in MC Escher’s work through the expansion of tiny repeatable units into larger shapes. He conveys evolution of these shapes, eventually forming them into recognizable animals that seem to literally come to life in front of you in a variety of different evolutionary pathways. This multiplicity from a simple shape is evocative of the ways that nature adapts and changes. The same concept is mirrored in evolution; one small change can affect an organism substantially down the evolutionary tree.

It is interesting to see all the different ways that MC Escher has influenced biology. From the development of spots in animals, to protein kinematics, to DNA origami, Escher’s artistic work can still be actively applied to biological work being done today. The real test of the forward-thinking artistic thought of MC Escher is in the applications of his optical illusion-inducing, logic-defying ideas. The repeatable subunits of biology, coupled with the evolution of tessellated shapes, along with the transfer from idea to living being back to idea and gene swapping between organisms all convey this deep-seated idea that the things we create are living, breathing entities. They change over time in ways that we don’t expect and we should let them.

It is only through the adaptive evolution of these biological forms that we might begin to approximate the impossible. We can achieve so much if we let the shapes of our world adapt to fit different functions and come to life in front of us. The growing movement in procedurally-generated design is the new era of Escher-like mentality in evolving repeatable subunits. Perhaps it is through these novel ideas that literally spring to life in front of us that we can tackle the truly impossible challenges of our world and create sustainable solutions to seemingly impossible problems through biology with a touch of art.


If you’ve liked this article please click that green heart. It goes a long way to beginning the conversation about these ideas. If you’re interested in talking to me a bit more about patterns, possibilities or protein dynamics, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you!

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