Student view:

Davis Mathieu: 'Spirit Molecules'

Jan. 6, 2020

Davis Mathieu is a doctoral student in the genetics program in the College of Natural Science; he participated in the "Spirit Molecule" program, part of an ongoing collaboration between MSU and two artists. The collaboration was on display, in its first phase, this summer.

An essential part of being human is coping with death. Losing someone close or facing the limitations of our own mortality can induce strong emotions of fear and sadness. The negative connotation affiliated with death has left many cultures in a state of taboo on the subject. However, being human is synonymous with being mortal. So why are we so reluctant to talk about this essential stage of life?

Artists Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Phillip Andrew Lewis teamed up with the MSU Broad Art Museum and the Hamberger Lab to address this disconnect in creating the art piece, "Spirit Molecule." This interdisciplinary team utilizes art and synthetic biology to preserve the memory of an individual in an unconventional way. By taking a segment of a loved one’s DNA and inserting it into the genome of moss, we can preserve a representative fingerprint of their being.

As a graduate student in Björn Hamberger’s lab, I was excited and hesitant to participate in bringing Heather and Phillip’s idea, literally, to life. On one hand, the chance to collaborate with the artistic community is something few scientists ever conceive as a possibility. But, on the other hand, what were the implications of the final product and how would they be perceived by a general audience?

Between losing my mother at a young age and volunteering for hospice in my teens, I would say I have a strong understanding of death and the emotions death can bring. Because Spirit Molecule combines mortality and synthetic biology, two subjects I find inherent to my identity, my involvement came with the prerequisite of not allowing the integrity of these fields to be jeopardized. At our first meeting, it was apparent that this perspective was unanimously shared between the artists and scientists alike.

The Hamberger lab specializes in terpene metabolism, a family of molecules involved in medicines, fragrances and biofuels, among many others. With this scientific background, we decided that adding a gene that produces patchouli, a fragrant terpene used in perfumes and produces an earthy aroma would be appropriate. It not only contained the DNA fingerprint, but also produced an essence and an experience. A fitting symbolism for what the moss represents.

This collaboration fostered a truly unique frame of mind in both the artists and scientists. As a student who came to MSU because of the scope of collaboration among scientists, I was shocked and pleased to see the extent to which these networks could reach.

As "Spirit Molecule" concludes, I hope the audience takes away the same collaborative experience as me. Although art is subjective and the piece deals with themes of death and transgenics, the purpose in my eye is not meant to be controversial.

To me, "Spirit Molecule" is a conversation — a conversation of how gene editing may influence our future and conserve the memory of those who have passed, a conversation about our views of death and the attributes of being mortal. A conversation about what it means to be human.