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June 18, 2019

Björn Hamberger: When science and art come together

June 19, 2019

Björn Hamberger is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Natural Science.

The Science Gallery Detroit is the first U.S. representation of a global university-linked network dedicated to public outreach at the intersection of science and art. Exhibitions aim at 15- to 25-year-olds by bridging emerging scientific areas with design and technology.

Our team met Mark Sullivan, creative director of the Science Gallery Detroit, for the first time in July last year to explore how we could connect. Our idea was centered on a vision to explain the importance of our research on plant synthetic biology to the public. The deadline for the open call for the Science Gallery Detroit exhibition “Depth” came really fast, and we realized that all our project ideas had been far too complicated to make a convincing pitch. 

Retrospectively, this was a lucky moment; we were forced to reduce everything to a single concept, with different facets contributed through collaborations. We were enthusiastic when finally four diverse teams came together: Greg Bonito, an expert in (previously unrecognized wild) diversity in fungal species and fascinated by the capabilities of ancient lineage of fungi; Sarah Evans, who just reported on travelling microbial communities in coastal fog; Jj Kidder, audio artist with an exceptional talent to design and build synthesizer systems for transforming digital data into sound; and ours. With that, “Fog of Dawn” was born.

This experimental installation explores how fungal species (that live in close proximity with their plant hosts and provide them with nutrients) pulled off the ultimate coup, claiming a new habitat — the land. Both organisms still rely critically on the medium they came from with fungal spores hitching a ride in tiny water droplets for distribution and the moss still needing water for sexual reproduction.

The modern impact of the organisms goes far beyond terrestrialization — the colonization of the land by aquatic organisms — we showcase. Both are important for biotechnological applications in the field of synthetic biology, including potential for supporting life in deep space exploration and the use of such symbiotic systems in terraforming, the process of changing a planet's conditions to make it habitable for humans.

Walking into the exhibition on opening day and seeing how all exhibits came together was a goosebump moment. But meeting the team of mediators, who will guide visitors through the exhibition over the course of this summer, triggering questions and fostering discussions, revealed the last piece of the puzzle — how this new kind of exhibition works: immersion and interaction. And as for “Fog of Dawn” — I have never seen synthetic biology that tangible and approachable. 

“Fog of Dawn” is one of thirty installations from teams around the world and on display from June 8 to August 17 at the Michigan Science Center.

This installation is in part supported by the NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity project 'Phylogenetic and Functional Diversity of Tripartite Plant- Fungal-Bacterial Symbioses' and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.