Anna Dumitriu is a UK based artist specializing in BioArt that is art involving or referencing living things and biology. Based in Brighton, UK, Anna has profound interests in microbiology, infectious diseases, and issues surrounding healthcare, and shares great interest in exploring the field of CRISPR, gene editing, DNA sequencing, and all the wonderful mechanisms of life. GenScript Biotech is happy to have had to opportunity to sponsor and support Anna with one of her artworks, “Hypersymbiotics”, which is currently on display at the “The World is In You” exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Denmark. We caught up with her in this interview to learn more about her very fascinating career journey, her art and inspirations, as well as what the future holds in store for the BioArtist.
Do you have a biology background yourself, or is that something that came afterwards when you started to do your art.
Anna Dumitriu: I trained in fine art, so fine art is kind of what I guess came first, but [obviously] as a child, I was interested in science. But I think the way it was taught when I was at school, and I don’t know if it’s still the same now but…, it wasn’t very engaging. It was almost a bit off-putting in fact. It was a girl’s school, and I think they were trying to put us off underage pregnancy, so biology was very much focused on things like that, and it ended up putting me off biology a bit.
But obviously, I was [still] interested in it. Still, the kind of stuff they showed you at the school wasn’t [about] growing bacteria, wasn’t talking about sequencing and any of those technologies, it was very different to what it is now. The early-stage of looking into that stuff for me was when the World Wide Web first became available, and for the first time you could research things outside your domain of expertise.
I started to find out, through searching, not googling because I’m talking [about] before Google, that the difference between the information we were presented with as laypeople and the information that scientists knew were so different in perspective, and I wanted to make a bridge between that, between the laypeople and the scientists; To go there and find out these stories and share them with the arts audience and beyond that as well. You know, get them out to the public domain.
In an interview you gave, you mentioned that a great anecdote has much more resonance with people than a whole load of scientific data. In a way, that’s a problem because a good story can so easily sway us, so we need to be careful of storytelling. So how do you personally find the balance between providing an accurate reflection of a scientific subject and bringing a more personal, artistic liberty interpretation?
Anna Dumitriu: Well, I make sure that the stories I tell represent real science. So the stories are of my experiences in the lab working with the scientists, things that I’ve researched; I look at a lot of historical stuff. So, then I will sometimes find stories that are pretty shocking and unusual and occasionally wrong, but I can tell the new story like this is what they did then, but this is what we know. And so now you have the combination of the power of the anecdote with the story of science now. So that’s, I guess, how I negotiate that.
I mean, recently, there’s been an ongoing Twitter row between the pop star Nicki Minaj and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer in the UK, because he discussed in a press conference how she claimed that her cousin got… a fertility problem caused by a COVID-19 vaccine, and of course it’s not at all a side-effect that anyone has ever recorded. So anyway, it became like a political incident. She was tweeting about the chief medical officer, and Public Health England had to put out tweets, and it even got to the stage where the British government was putting out tweets trying to disclaim this story that she told. But obviously, that’s going to reach a lot more people, and could affect COVID-19 vaccine take up, so it’s a massive problem.
During a TED talk in Bucharest you mentioned that you’ve been one of the few artists allowed to hold a petri dish of Plague Bacillus in Porton Down.
Anna Dumitriu: I wrote a text about that as well, which I call “Confronting the Bacterial Sublime.” I think that bacteria are very sublime in the word’s true meaning because people misuse it a lot; they describe chocolate as sublime. But… suppose you go back to Edmund Burke in 1757 when he wrote “A Philosophical Inquiry on the Beautiful and the Sublime”. In that text, he talks about that moment, “when all the motions of the senses are suspended with some degree of terror,” and then Immanuel Kant, inspired by Burke goes on to talk about these notions of the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime. It’s like something that you can’t hold it in your brain it’s just too big. Burke also says that obscurity is very important for the sublime, so not being able to see things, or not being able to touch things… and also that the tiniest of things can be sublime.
Burke was aware that ‘animalcules’ existed at the time; it was the old name for bacteria that van Leeuwenhoek coined, so this idea of bacteria being sublime and the idea that plague is the most terrifying, world-changing thing… I mean, we think COVID’s changed the world… but if you compare the death rate of COVID-19 to the death rate of plague and how much it swept across the globe… It killed half the population of China and a third of the people of Europe at some point; it killed a lot of people. Things like public health, local government, refuse collection, that sort of stuff, that all comes from, you know when they had to implement systems to deal with all this. So it changed our everyday lives hugely, and so did the COVID-19 pandemic. Even here where I live, at the early stage of the pandemic, they started to put like A4 printed sheets up saying, “COVID-19 has been identified in this apartment building”, and stuff like that on the door. You know, it’s not far off a big red cross and “May Lord have mercy on us” is it, you know? So that was bizarre, and then I would go around because I felt like it was something that we needed to document, but like we wouldn’t bother to document. So it was like occasionally going around where I live, taking photographs of the “Closed” signs and the closed shops and stuff. When I realized they were going to be allowed to open up again, I went around and documented what it was like. So… plague, I think is this very sublime organism.
To go into a bit more detail about what happened, through contacts with Modernizing Medical Biology and through my longtime collaborator Dr. John Paul, who I’ve been working with for over 20 years roughly now, I was introduced to the scientists from what was called HPA Porton then, which was Health Protection Agency, and discussed with them my interest in it. Both I and John were invited to Porton Down in 2011 to participate in a workshop which normally was only available to microbiologists, but as an artist with these credentials in the field and with this long track record of working in the field, it was possible. I’ve worked with category 3 organisms before I did this, with Tuberculosis (TB) in the labs; I’ve been trained on how to do it all. I was invited to go with him and we could work together and participate in this workshop which was called, “Identification and handling of potential, deliberate release category 3 agents”. It was to make microbiologists aware of bioterrorism basically, and how you would deal with that if it came into your lab. What to do if you found anthrax for instance, like a patient came in with that and you were doing some studies and you realized it was that, what to do and how to observe it; So it was about raising awareness of those risks.
I participated in that, and I followed the whole course just as all the other microbiologists did. I worked in a category three containment hood under negative pressure with the bacteria, and I was handling it and putting it on slides, and we looked at it in the… it was all contained. Everything is highly secure, it’s one of the most secure labs in the UK, and it was an exciting experience. But what I was trying to do was have an experience of the sublime, as I was holding this petri dish and working with it. But what I ended up doing was trying to look like a good microbiologist. I could only reflect afterward and before because the process of science and doing it properly, doing it correctly, and learning my training overrode my experience of the sublime which I guess is how scientists cope and deal with these things daily. Dealing with COVID-19 in the early stages when we didn’t know how it was transmitted, or you know, how it could spread, or how dangerous it was or not… You know those kinds of things are… and then there was no vaccine at that point, you know… that must have been something like that. But then these methodologies of science and biomedical research took over, I think, so it was an interesting tension.
How has the COVID pandemic affected your BioArt? Has it significantly changed how you work? On the other hand, has it inspired you to approach specific immunological or virological topics with a new perspective?
Anna Dumitriu: Oh, all the above, I think. I mean, I work a lot embedded in laboratory settings working hands-on alongside scientists, learning the techniques that I’m using in my work, and so that all stopped. I did my first residency in an actual lab since the pandemic at the start of October, at the Helmholtz Institute in Munich in the Institute for epigenetics and stem cells. I spent a week with them then and went back again last week. It was great to be back in the lab doing new, exciting work that is not in an area I’ve touched on that much before. I was doing a lot of hands-on experiments attaching fluorescent dyes to Heterochromatin and Euchromatin… actually attaching them to chromatin in the cell’s DNA, the thing that wraps around in the cells, so studying that.
We were looking at the impact of higher temperatures on transcription replication conflicts, so it was a relatively, as I understood, novel experiment that I came up with (laughs), and then we decided to try it. I’ve also come up with another one that we’re going to be trying next as well which is a longer experiment. So, it’s sort of like we’re coming up with these experiments and then I work alongside the scientists, they kind of work with the control and then I do the thing that we are testing and then we get the results, it was about a four-day experiment that one. It was really nice to be back in the lab doing that. So, a lot of my projects have been stopped because a lot of my collaborators work very much in infectious diseases, so a lot of them were taken over to working with COVID.
For instance, one of my collaborators on the work I’ve been doing with the CRyPTIC project, which is an Oxford University led project exploring tuberculosis (TB) genomics has been leading an important UK wide study into how many people had COVID-19 antibodies. CRyPTIC is an amazing project actually, they studied samples from 10,000 tuberculosis patients from all around the world. They basically make these 14 well plates where you could grow someone’s TB infection in it in the presence of 14 different antibiotics and the whole genome of the bacteria was sequenced, and then they processed the data of whether there was growth or no growth in the presence of the antibiotics. So now from all this massive amount of data that can now infer which of the first four frontline antibiotics will treat a particular case of TB from its genome, and that’s the first time work like that has ever been done, so you can literally get the treatment, the prescription from the genome, so it’s fantastic and important research and can be used as a protocol for other organisms in the future.
Working with my partner we made an installation which is called “Susceptible”, which we planned before the pandemic. It is interesting that the word susceptible is much more used now, it was always a sort of quite unusual word “are you susceptible, are you not”. In fact, we were talking about whether the TB was susceptible to the antibiotics. We made a large-scale immersive installation, where it explores how that antibiotics need to be targeted, and if you’re not targeting them, you’re driving antibiotic resistance.
One of my collaborators Dr. Jane Freeman at Leeds University said to me, during a discussion about antibiotic resistance, “Anna, COVID-19 is like throwing a bomb at the issue of antibiotic resistance”, because… basically antibiotic stewardship went out the window during the pandemic, because people were being given prophylactic antibiotics, often rightly so. For COVID-19 we didn’t know what to do. But also for things like dental stuff, if somebody got a tooth infection the dentists were kind of closed for some of the time during the pandemic. The dentists were completely unavailable, there were some emergency ones but they were almost entirely closed, and so people were being given antibiotics by the dentists because they could not come in and have the thing sorted out, so that kind of thing can be a driver of antibiotic resistance so it’s a huge issue. On the other hand some types of infections were significantly reduced, for example some sexually transmitted diseases, so it will be interesting to see what the longer term results will be.
From all the arts that you have done, and all the inspirations that you have, would this be the one that you say, “oh this is a milestone for my work because I could do that”, or is there also other examples that make you say, “no when I did this, this piece here is my favorite”.
Anna Dumitriu: It’s a tricky question. It’s tough to pick a favorite. I do really like my “Plague Dress”. I was invited to work with the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), the oldest collection of pathogenic bacteria globally. It’s been around for a hundred years now, and last year was their postponed-now-to-this-year, 100th anniversary. And they’ve got organisms in their collection dating from 1915. So these are like the oldest living bacteria, they have, for example, the oldest living Cholera. So through connections with Modernizing Medical Biology, I was invited to be Artist-in-Residence with them. They’re partly in Colindale in London and partly in Porton. Through that, I extracted the DNA from killed plagues at Colindale, and I did that hands-on with the scientists. The “Plague Dress” is a 1665 dress design, dyed with walnut, which Culpeper the herbalist said was a good treatment for the plague… probably not, I wouldn’t risk it but… he recommended it, making a beautiful kind of brown dye, and then the dress is… it’s got actual period of embroidery from around the 1660s applied on it, and this embroidery I then inoculated with the plague DNA. So in the embroidery, hidden in there, invisible, is the actual DNA of the Yersinia Pestis that I extracted.
The dress is stuffed full of lavender and turmeric and a lot of the spices they used to use and carry during the time of plague. The DNA was extracted to be used for whole genome sequencing and trying to understand it from that perspective. So it takes it from the 1660s to very contemporary science, so that’s a piece I really like. And then like… the tuberculosis work I’ve done… my “Pneumothorax Machine” which is a carved, altered pneumothorax machine… I often work with found historical items and then alter them and then incorporate them into the work. I did a piece called “Make Do And Mend,” which is quite a complicated work about the relationship of CRISPR and the start of the antibiotic age in 1941, and patching and repairing and, “could you repair antibiotic resistance?” things like that. It’s too complicated to explain in this probably, but you can go on my website, and there’s a link to it. That one was really important because that was the first work I made with CRISPR, and according to the CRISPR journal, probably the first CRISPR artwork. It’s a homologous recombination edit on an ampicillin antibiotic resistance gene from an E. coli and repairing it with the phrase “Make Do and Mend,” which is then embedded into silk and grown in silk which is then made into work. But that was important because that was early synthetic biology stuff for me.
Also, going to the University of California Irvine in 2016 and working in the Liu Lab for Synthetic Evolution was a big thing because they patiently explained to me something like the central dogma of biology and how that works. We were working with non-canonical amino acids, so I made a piece based on an engineered antibody with 21 amino acids instead of the usual 20. When you think about the trajectory of all this stuff now, they were all, you know, significant work… Leading up to where I am now.
To be continued….