Thursday, November 13, 2014

Biology is Art, and Biology is an Art

In the year before I came to MIT, I took an art history class for the first time.  Though previously I had very little interest in the visual arts, the interface between art and culture really struck a chord with me.  Another art history class and many trips to the MFA later, my appreciation for art has only grown.  As a biological engineer, I think that advancements in biology will help to shape the future of our culture.  And, based on the technologies that we have learned about so far in 20.109, biology also has the potential to affect the future of the visual arts.

Imagine a painting made out of bacteria that could change shades in response to the amount of light in a room.  Imagine fluorescent trees that not only saved energy by lighting walkways at night but astounded passers-by with their combined natural and man-made beauty.  Imagine colorful stained-glass windows that captured solar energy.  Two out of three of these projects are possible based on technology that we learned about in 20.109, and the third is in the process of being developed through a crowd-funded project.

Biology can be art.

That said, biology can also be an art.  As we've learned so far in 20.109 (particularly in this module with our less-than-ideal beta-galactosidase assays and Western blots with many bands), getting experiments to work sometimes seems more like an art than a science.  The best way to get better at art is practice.  I think the same can be said for lab techniques.  I look forward to mastering the arts we've studied so far.  Even if repeating experiments can be tedious at times, the results are subtly different every time, just like with art.

Even though biological techniques might not be as predictable as the scientist in me says that they ought to be, now that engineering biology is feasible, designing with biology is a real possibility, and I'm excited to see how "bio-artists" give cells and viruses visual appeal.  Maybe by showcasing the beauty of biology, the public will become more comfortable with the idea of using biological systems to solve problems in everyday life, from GMOs to cellular- and viral-based therapies.  I look forward living in a world where biological engineering can have a real impact, and I'm hopeful that I'll be part of the change to see this happen in my lifetime.

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