MDI Biological Laboratory

Art Meets Science: ‘Branches From the Same Tree’

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.”

– Albert Einstein, 1937

Art and science are both essential expressions of what it is to be human. Each one is driven by discovery, curiosity, and a profound longing to know oneself and the surrounding world.

Here at the MDI Bio Lab, Albert Einstein’s observation of the benefits of interdisciplinary study drives our Art Meets Science program – in an effort to strengthen the connections between art and science. As an institution founded in 1898 with a distinct focus on exploration and learning from the natural world, the MDI Bio Lab is uniquely suited for this endeavor.

Through the study of comparative biology, our small institution is well known for our contributions to understanding the molecular mechanisms in kidney function, the impact of environmental toxins on human health, as well as the organ regeneration and aging biology. Our scientists embark on their investigative journey equipped with modern tools and experimental approaches, laid out in a neat and tidy linear fashion.

At first glance, this may seem vastly different than the less linear path followed by artists, yet both scientists and artists train for years to learn the principles of their profession and attain the technical and conceptual skills to be successful. They both restlessly innovate, seek new directions by trial and error, gain fresh insights into how the world functions and how we experience it, and ultimately share their interpretation of those insights with the world.

Both art and science share the obligation to the public to make their work understandable and justify its existence. It is not only the visual experience, but also the communication inherent in this work. Beyond the title, the materials and the techniques involved in making the artwork are essential to develop a deeper understanding beyond the aesthetic quality. This approach is not so very different from the scientific discourse. A figure legend with a title and the description of methods used is scientifically necessary and essential for the understanding of the experimental results.

This lack of communication is even more astonishing when one looks at some of the parallel “products” which are generated in science and art. In our Art Meets Science exhibit, we present the works of contemporary artists alongside original scientific results generated within our laboratories. At first glance, it is not easy to see the difference between science and art. While many know that contemporary artists are no longer limited to the classical tools of the brush and easel, few of us have realized how much more ‘art-like’ scientific diagrams have become. The evolution of advanced microscopy, single cell analysis and bioinformatics have dramatically changed how scientific results are presented and experienced, producing imagery that is not just pleasing to the eye but compels visual analysis.

It is easy to argue that the communication between art and science was easier hundreds of years ago at a time when the two branches were more closely aligned. When scientists were artists and artists were scientists – equally driven by the desire to understand the natural world.

It is also easy to assume that the two disciplines were closer because science was less complex and specialized than it is today. However, one only needs to think of Piero della Fransceca (1415-1492), Albrecht Durer (1471-1578), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) or Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) to challenge this idea. Leonardo da Vinci is renowned for both his artwork and exploratory drawings exploring the properties of water, flight and anatomy. We know that he himself saw no distinction between the different ways he tried to grasp the essence of nature. The beauty and the complexity of the science being done at the time is staggering.

MDIBL is the perfect place to bring artists and scientists together as we continue to seek inspiration and understanding. This exhibit presents an opportunity for both to take a step back from their work to think about discoveries, discuss the process by which they are made, and see the familiar and known from different perspectives.  For this purpose we need academic places such as the campus of MDIBL. We bring together at MDIBL not only leading scientists from all over the world but expose them to artist world (and vice vera) to initiate this discourse between the specialists.

As we mark MDI Biological Laboratory’s 125th Anniversary, we celebrate our legacy of discovery and of serving as a gathering place for international luminaries to initiate interdisciplinary discourse in the field of science surrounded and inspired by stunning natural beauty. What better place to engage in meaningful discussion between artists and scientists as we seek to graft together the branches of art and science in new and fruitful ways.  Standing in front of our exhibit, we hope you will let your eyes and thoughts wander and experience the dynamic interplay of two fields cross-pollinating and seeding new ideas for one another.

— Hermann Haller, M.D.

Our 2023 Art Meets Science exhibition is curated by Hermann Haller, M.D., President of MDI Biological Laboratory and Aaron Rosen, Ph.D., Director of the Parsonage Gallery, Searsport, Maine.   

Michael Takeo Magruder
The Horse as Technology: Portraits of Conquest, War, Famine and Death, 2018
Archive digital prints on Somerset Velvet Enhanced (100% cotton rag).

Michael Takeo Magruder (b. 1974) is a British-American artist and researcher whose work uses Information Age technologies and systems to examine our networked, media-rich society. He has exhibited widely across the world and served as artist in residence at institutions such as the British Library and the UK National Archives.

These algorithmically generated prints are inspired by his solo exhibition De/coding the Apocalypse, first held at Somerset House, London in 2014. At the exhibition’s center was an installation entitled The Horse as Technology, in which an array of 3D printers encircled a horse skull like disciples or stenographers, creating small replicas of the skull in real time. The work represented the artist’s reinterpretation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the biblical Book of Revelation (6:1-8).

For Takeo, the horse exemplifies a form of technology that for millennia served as the most efficient means of transporting people, goods, and ideas across territories and cultures. 3D and virtual systems introduce a plethora of modern marvels, inviting us to speculate about how, in the artist’s words, these emerging technologies possess “the power to either create or destroy.” In these prints, the artist introduces other digital layers, including QR codes which enact Google image searches for the Four Horseman: Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

Takeo’s horse skulls create a striking visual dialogue with Marko Pende’s video of neuronal activity inside a mouse cranium. While MDIBL scientists utilize innovative techniques to test the potential for regeneration, Takeo’s artworks remind us that even the most promising technologies can sometimes become double-edged swords.

 

Marko Pende, Ph.D.
Journey through the Brain, 2023
Single-channel digital video.

This video depicts a Thy1-EGFP mouse line, showing brain-wide spars GFP labeling of different neuronal populations. The samples were tissue cleared with a dehydration-based method and imaged using mesoSPIM.

mesoSPIM, which stands for “mesoscale selective plane illumination microscopy” in one of only four such microscopes in the country, and was built at the MDI Bio Lab in late 2022 by members of the Murawala Lab. This technology allows for comparatively large animal samples to be moved efficiently through sheets of light produced by lasers. The end results are three-dimensional images of entire organisms, zoomable down to scales smaller than a single cell. Here, each gold dot represents a neuron within the brain of a mouse.

Marko Pende, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Prayag Murawala, Ph.D. which studies the regenerative qualities of the axolotl. Pende’s research currently focuses on the role nerves play in the regeneration of damaged limbs. The Thy1 mouse brain imaged here is commonly used to show how successful a tissue clearing method is regarding tissue transparency, signal preservation and maintenance of morphology. This mouse brain also served as a tool for assessing the quality of the respective light sheet system.

In most scientific publications that include the method of tissue clearing, the mouse brain is a standard used as ‘figure one’ – a standard to measure other images against for transparency. Creating such images serves as ‘quality control’ for the method and the light-sheet microscope, before addressing real brain-connection questions.

 

Eileen Ryan
Codex No. 1-3, 2022
Logs with beetle carvings, hand gilded by artist.

Eileen Ryan is an emerging interdisciplinary artist based in New England, who often draws on her background in microbiology to create works exploring intersections between art, science, and spirituality.

Ryan remembers walking in the forest as a child gathering sticks carved by beetles, wondering what secret messages they might contain. “As I grew older,” she writes, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that the woods had something to say.” The works in this exhibition represent a selection from Codex, Ryan’s multi-year project exploring bark beetle galleries, as they are commonly (and tellingly) called. In this interspecies collaboration, she gilds the galleries by hand, much like a medieval manuscript illuminator reverently embellishing a passage of scripture. This wager on meaning is not merely metaphorical. Ryan also feeds these beetle graphics into language recognition software, seeking out poetic phrases ‘encoded’ in this curious calligraphy.

Set alongside the curling, cursive-like forms of the C. elegans from the Updike laboratory, Ryan’s images encourage us to think about what other ‘languages’ might be latent in the forms and paths of other species. While researchers may ‘paint’ translucent worms with fluorescent tags for empirical ends, their creations nonetheless allow us to wonder at the ‘galleries’ beneath their microscope.

 

Dustin Updike, Ph.D.
DUP206b, 2019
Digital Print.

DUP206b depicts the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans strain DUP206 glh-1(sam24[glh-1::gfp::3xFLAG]) I; msp-142(sam116[msp-142::mCherry::V5]) II. It was acquired on a Leica inverted widefield microscope, with a 40x air objective, deconvolved and tile-stitched. CRISPR-Cas9 was used to place a green fluorescent tag on endogenous GLH-1 proteins in germ cells and oocytes and an mCherry red fluorescent tag on endogenous MSP-142 proteins in sperm. Transmitted light is shown in the cyan channel. Hermaphrodites were placed on a thin agarose layer and enclosed in a coverslip. This particular C. elegans roundworm strain permits the visualization of oocytes and sperm throughout the development of a living organism.

While shown here in large scale, in the lab, this image measures only 3×2 mm. The Updike Laboratory studies how stem cells maintain pluripotency, or the ability to become any type of cell in the body, work that will further our understanding of human fertility, wound healing, regeneration, and the formation of tumors. The short lifespan (12-18 days) of the C. elegans allows researchers to experiment with ways to slow down or even reverse aging, and at how stem cells maintain the capacity to become other cell types in the body. Their transparent nature allows for an easier view of individual C. elegans cells under the microscope.

 

Todd Forsgren A.R.M.S. (Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures), from the series Full Fathom Five, 2019 Photographs.

Todd Forsgren is a photographer and new media artist whose diverse body of work examines themes including ecology, climate change, and social justice. He is based in Montana, where he is a professor at Rocky Mountain College and directs the Ryniker-Morrison Gallery.

In this series of photographs, Forsgren documents flora and fauna which grow on 9 x 9 inch PVC panels submerged in the ocean, called Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (A.R.M.S.). At set intervals, scientists retrieve these A.R.M.S. to examine and document growth patterns, helping them assess the health of vulnerable marine ecosystems.

The resulting images take on colors and forms reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist paintings. At the same time, Forsgren notes, the plates themselves might be considered akin to photographs, ‘exposed’ to the ocean and developed in its ‘darkroom.’ Not unlike the images produced by the Drummond Lab, Forsgren’s images document biological processes and patterns, training the eye to look for changes over time. In addition to thinking about the many different stages of growth present on a single A.R.M.S., one might also imagine a set of images overlaid upon one another, much the way Drummond’s team combines images.

 

Iain Drummond, Ph.D.
comp3wt, 2023
Digital Print.

These images of newly forming zebrafish kidney tubules were generated using the Zeiss 980 super resolution confocal microscope to image a transgenic zebrafish line expressing jellyfish green fluorescent protein under the control of kidney-specific genetic regulatory elements. By thresholding the images for the brightest points of cell fluorescence and false coloring each example with a different color in Photoshop, the size and shape of many cell projections can be recorded and overlaid to give an overall average tubule interconnection phenotype. frizzled9b gene mutant tubules are wider and on average, mislocalize their projections to the periphery of the new tubules, resulting in abnormal or failed interconnection events. The implication is that the frizzled9b gene plays an essential role in “steering” a tubule to properly connect with another tubule.

These images address the challenge of visualizing many examples of the same biological process at one time, a common scenario in the Drummond Lab which studies how zebrafish develop and regenerate epithelial organs. By generating false colored, overlaid images of many invasive cell processes that drive epithelial tubule interconnection, the viewer gets a sense of the size and position of cell extensions in many tubules and avoids the bias or idiosyncrasies of any one interconnection event. Patterns emerge that illustrate reproducible differences in size and distribution of cell extensions that occur when genes essential for this phenomenon are mutated.

 

Brian Smith
Lightning Rod, 2022
Welded steel, foam, plaster, pigment, acrylic forms, fabric, oil pigment, wax.

Brian Smith is an interdisciplinary artist based in southern Maine, working at the intersection of sculpture, painting, and installation. He explores the interactions—both positive and negative—between human and non-human species, looking for moments of desire, awe, and curious delight.

Smith’s engagement with the natural world is at once diligently researched and attuned to the unknowable. In this sculpture, he reproduces the anthurium—a common but potentially poisonous houseplant—at a scale that renders it both otherworldly and comical. Out of nowhere, a lightning bolt strikes its bulbous spadix, turning this phallic protrusion into a sort of floppy weathervane or squishy satellite dish. “I was captivated by the idea of pairing something so delicate,” says the artist, “with something perceived as a violent element of nature.” Whether this lightning bolt will incinerate or innervate its unlikely receiver, we can only speculate.

Cory Johnson’s images of zebrafish curiously echo the colors of Smith’s sculpture and the vascular, branching form of the lightning bolt (as well as the flower’s spathe, or sheath). Both Johnson and Smith magnify small natural organisms, in the process discovering the sublime in the quotidian.

 

 

 

Cory Johnson, Ph.D.
Deconstructed, 2023
Digital Print.

In this image, zebrafish were fixed and immune-stained to amplify endogenously expressed fluorescent proteins demarcating blood vessels (magenta) and the developing kidney (green). Zebrafish were whole-mounted using low-melt agarose and imaged through the dorsal plane using a Zeiss LM980 equipped with a multi-photon laser.

Raw images were processed using a 20-pixel gaussian blur and a low-end threshold was applied to each channel individually to generate a mask lacking minor details. The resulting mask for developing kidney was converted to an edges mask and dilated 3 times using the dilate function in Fiji. Similarly, the resultant blood vessel mask was skeletonized and dilated 3 times using the dilate function in Fiji. Finally, these images were pseudo-colored and overlaid.

Zebrafish, or Danio rerio, are freshwater fish that originate from South Asia. They are unique, making for excellent research animal models due to their relatively rapid development and regenerative capacity. Additionally, zebrafish larvae are transparent, which make them exceptional models for developmental biology and microscopy.

Multi-photon microscopy allows the user to image thick biological specimens (up to 1mm). Additionally, multi-photon microscopy uses longer wavelengths of light to excite fluorescent molecules which leads to less photobleaching (loss of signal). This method leads to less out-of-focus light due to the inherent physical properties of the technique – only the in-focus plane will reach the critical number of photons per time and space needed for excitation of the sample. Fiji, as an open-source image analysis software, is commonly used for less-computationally heavy image analytics. This allows users to manipulate and quantify their images to better understand their imaging data.

The Haller Laboratory is interested in the future potential of human induced pluripotent stem cells to grow replacement kidneys in the lab. However, current kidney organoids (kidney-like organs grown from stem cells in a dish) are immature and lack important tissues such as blood vessels, which are critical to kidney function and viability. The Haller Lab uses stem cell-derived kidney organoids and zebrafish to interrogate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the kidney vascularization process.

 

Ian Trask
The Swarm, 2022
Discarded electronic waste and miscellaneous man-made debris.

Ian Trask is a Maine-based sculptor and multimedia artist who transforms waste materials into objects and installations with new purpose and integrity. While his immersive works often play with sophisticated mathematical patterns, he also enjoys working on an intimate scale, which provides the opportunity to play with more intricate forms and conjure amusing connections.

Trask’s puckish sense of humor is on full display in The Swarm, in which he repurposes electronic waste—especially computer mice—into a menagerie of insects. Suspended in display cases, like specimens in an entomologist’s laboratory, Trask’s bugs are natural companions to the fruit fly embryo captured by Frédéric Bonnet.

Once living pieces of technology, alive with electricity and transmitting digital information, Trask’s Swarm now shares the fate of the fruit fly, whose neural pathways once crackled with activity. In another sense, however, Trask’s creatures find new life as works of art. His inventions invite us to speculate what will become of scientists’ cutting-edge technology when it becomes outdated. Will it be consigned to the rubbish heap, like so much electronic waste, or find new purposes, perhaps yet to be imagined?

 

Frederic Bonnet, Ph.D.
Luminous Cityscape: A Neurological Night Odyssey, 2023
Digital Print.

This image lays bare the neural pathways of a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) embryo, unveiled against a backdrop of a vibrant blue sky studded with countless twinkling stars. Frédéric Bonnet, Ph.D., manager of MDI Biological Laboratory’s Light Microscopy Facility (LMF) created this image with a Nikon confocal spinning disk microscope. Drosophila are currently utilized by Halyana Shcherbata, Ph.D. whose research is focused on gene expression and degenerative disease. Dr. Shcherbata seeks to understand the molecular mechanisms of stress, aging, and neuromuscular disorders at the very precise level of molecules through study of the fruit fly.

This awe-inspiring exploration of the microscopic world, unveils the intricate neuronal network of a drosophila embryo. Artfully imaged to highlight the fascinating web of neurons, it reveals the remarkable complexities and intricate pathways that guide the embryo’s development. Each flickering light hints at the vastness of the universe, inviting contemplation on the interconnectedness of all living beings. The juxtaposition of the celestial bodies with the microscopic realm serves as a reminder of the astounding complexity that exists within the smallest building blocks of life.

 

 

 

Susan L. Smith holds a PhD and MFA from the University of Maine at Orono, where she now directs the Intermedia Program. She utilizes community-based collaboration, site-based performance, and installation in her varied artistic practice, which examines ecological issues and prioritizes sustainability.

In these works, Smith collaborated with scientists, analyzing and repurposing soil from abandoned family farms in central Maine and water from the Blue Hill Peninsula, found to contain forever chemicals. Anchored in the principles of environmental justice, the artist comments: “The health of a society can be determined by the health of its soil.”

Viewed together on a single wall, one might imagine the Cortical Neuron Forest captured by Marko Pende from a mouse brain setting down roots in Smith’s Geomembrane. Even beyond these formal affinities, the conversation between the works invites us to consider how both animals and humans might be affected by polluted environments, and what possibilities exist for regeneration.

 

Marko Pende, Ph.D.
Cortical Neuron Forest, 2020
Digital Print.

This image zooms into the neurons of the brain of a mouse.  Here, a Thy1-EGFP mouse line, showing brain-wide spars GFP labelling of different neuronal populations. This sample was tissue cleared with a water-based method to enhance clarity and imaged with a ultramicroscope light sheet in Vienna, Austria.

In most scientific publications that include the method of tissue clearing, the mouse brain is a standard used as ‘figure one’ – a standard to measure other images against for transparency. Creating such images serves as ‘quality control’ for the method and the light-sheet microscope, before addressing real brain-connection questions.