Leve[n]dekunst, SEAD & iGEM Leuven
How a series of KU Leuven students cooperated with artists from the SEAD organisation and managed to create an interactive exhibition in Brussels.
When the students of the iGEM Leuven team were asked if they wanted to present alongside other Biotechnology art projects at the Royal Academy of Academics in Brussels, there was a tangible feeling of excitement. There were many questions, the first of which was the most obvious: What could they present? For that, the team reached out to the artist network SEAD (Space Ecologies Art and Design), an international network of artists, scientists, engineers and activists. From there, the team got in contact with artist and lector Pieter Steyaert, and an idea was first formed when they met for coffee and brainstorming in Leuven, at the start of April.
What came from that meeting formed the very basis of the project’s idea: Creating a virtual and simplified bacterial model that people could play with, almost like genetic Lego bricks. The created bacteria would then be simulated in a human body, and people would be able to see how their own versions of bacteria interacted and evolved over time. The project was divvied up until multiple parts, composed of multiple programming languages, as the scientists of the iGEM team began to code in the building blocks of what a bacteria would interact like in a digital environment.
The Programming of the Simulation
This first iteration of the project was simple in concept: A basic set of genetic ‘blocks’ would be offered to a user, who would then be able to re-order them in whatever way they wanted. In total, the simulation had about 15 blocks at the start. These blocks were simple genetic ideas, such as:
- Promoters — A marker for the bacteria to ‘Start reading here!’. In real life, if you don’t have a promoter, the bacteria won’t do anything with the sequence you have.
- Enhancers & Silencers — Genetic blocks that made anything more or less. If you have a gene that makes your bacteria more infectious, then the enhancer would make that effect even stronger. Alternatively, a silencer might reduce the effect of a toxic gene.
- Protein Coding Regions — This is where we had different proteins. Proteins can alter the properties of the bacteria itself, sometimes making it glow, or making it more infectious, or making it more resistant to the immune system.
- And many more!
Once a user works out what order they want, the program throws out a set of numbers that describe how good the bacteria is at doing things like infection cells, reproducing, evading the immune system and so on. At that point, the bacteria could be inserted into one of a hundred simulated human cells. It would spread over time, infecting other cells.
Of course, all of this needs to come back to the user. For that, two methods were used. The first was a circular image that demonstrated the bacteria present within the cells. The second was more abstract: In a style similar to old iTunes visualisers, the artist created a flowing cloud that changed depending on the bacteria in the cells. The amount of bacteria made the visualisation change shape and direction, and cells dying would trigger colourful changes.
“The biggest challenge with creating such a system was designing the interactions between bacteria and host. By the end, it became almost like a game, a tug of war between two sides which would determine whether a bacteria is allowed to spread, or quicly eliminated.” — Erik Tedre, one of the two student programmers who worked on the coding of this project.
The exhibit took place on April 26th, right next to the Royal Palace of Brussels. The exhibit showed promise, raising awareness and curiosity in people who wanted to know how everything fit together. With new feedback passed on to the team, they aim to improve the project further in continued collaboration with the artist, so that it can be shown again down the road.