YCAM Bio Research Open Day vol.6 Cells and Genes – February 11th, 2017

Last weekend I finally got to visit the bio lab in YCAM. It was truly a pleasure meeting the team and getting to know some behind the scenes episodes over fresh sashimi and lukewarm sake. In hopes that their efforts will be appreciated by a wider audience, I’ve loosely translated their exhibition in my own words. (Emphasis on loosely and I’m not affiliated with them, just to be clear.) Enjoy.

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YCAM Bio Research

At Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media (YCAM) we have been conducting research and development on the application possibilities of recent advancements in biotechnology in the fields of art, education and communities. In the fiscal year of 2016 we have presented our progress through exhibitions and workshops in a total of six open day events.

While extending the applications of technology to a fundamental level closely associated with our daily lives, we have been continuously developing projects that propose new ways of life and living. By reinterpreting the latest technological trends around the world in the form of food, clothing and shelter which is indispensable to our lives, we aim to create a platform that encourages discussions about future literacy with the citizens of Yamaguchi.

When YCAM was established in 2003, the Human Genome Project had finished reading the DNA sequence that depicts the blueprint for human beings. At that time, it took over 10 years and the cooperation of many researchers from around the world to sequence 3 billion bases of human DNA. 13 years later, as a result of the developments in technology, the cost and time for gene analysis and the basic procedures for biotechnology has become more accessible to a personal level.

From the traditional culture of fermenting food and brewing drinks to modern medicine and energy generation, biotechnology has always been a part of our lives. Due to the exponential decline of costs for gene analysis and its applications, it has become possible for individuals who are not affiliated with research institutions of universities or companies to arrange a basic setting to conduct biological experiments. Not only can we look up instructions of how to make the necessary equipment, but we can also improvise by using utensils from the kitchen. In the near future we may witness a society that handles biotechnology as if it were nothing more then casually cooking in our kitchen.

With the decline of costs for biotechnology, the fist community based bio lab Genspace opened in New York at the end of 2010. Unlike the research institutions of companies or universities, this lab was open to the public. A wide range of people from high school students, writers, artists and designers gathered to this small lab to collaborate in projects and to hold workshops. Currently there are community bio labs in over 50 locations around the world.

1. Introduction – Cells and genes

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Living organisms are made of many different types of cells.The process of forming the body begins with stem cells, which later on differentiate into specific types of cells according the genes that function within them.

From familiar microbes that ferment our food to plants, fungi and microbes that dwell in the forest, in previous open days we have researched these organisms by observing them through microscopes and analysing their DNA. With the analysis software used in this research we have also introduced methods of searching, analysing and designing the information about the organisms. The theme of our latest research is “Cells and Genes”.

Cells are microscopic room-like structures that every organism has. They are covered by a membrane and can self-replicate. Recent research is carried out to understand how genes influence the cell to differentiate and form into different organs as the organisms grow.

Most of the multicellular organisms such as animals and plants are made of many types of cells such as skin cells and cardiac muscle cells. Stem cells are capable of differentiating into different organ cells. ES cells (Embryonic stem cells) are stem cells that are collected from embryonic cells. iPS cells (Induced pluripotent stem cells) are stem cells that are artificially made by introducing several genes into a human’s somatic cell (except for reproductive cells) such as skin cells. We conducted research focussing on iPS cells.

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The Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) is an institute in Kyoto University that conducts basic and applied research on iPS cells with the goal of contributing to regenerative medicine. Shinya Yamanaka, who is the director, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012. With the cooperation of the researchers of CiRA, they have provided their literature and learning material about iPS cells for our research.

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Stem cell card game

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Stem cell board game

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Experimenting in silico with iPS MASTER

2. Method – Learning from experts

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We learned the methods of culturing stem cells and the possibilities of applying this science for artistic projects from SymbioticA which is a research institution located in Australia that has strong ties with YCAM.

We participated in a project that used human iPS cells at SymbioticA, a research institution for art and biotechnology located in Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

cellF is a project led by Guy Ben-Ary who is an artist and researcher in SymbioticA. He cultivated his own skin cells to make iPS cells. His cells were differentiated into nerve cells and were incorporated into a synthesizer. We watched the performance that took place in the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia this January.

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Photo by YCAM Bio Research

3. Results – Handling cells

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We experimented with iPS cells which are capable of differentiating into different cells. With inspiration form the project that used nerve cells to control a synthesizer, we also considered the possibilities of iPS cells.

We coated a plastic container with a substrate, which is used as a scaffold for the cells to grow on, and cultured human iPS cells on it. We also poured liquid nutrients that are necessary for the cells to grow into the container. Since we had to constantly provide nutrients we changed the liquid once everyday. Human iPS cells grow at 37℃ with a carbon dioxide concentration of 5%. After changing the nutrients, the container of cells is placed in an incubator that maintains that environment. The iPS cells will start to grow and cover the bottom of the container in a couple of days to a week. Once the cells have covered the bottom of the container, they are peeled off and can be preserved by freezing or can be divided into several containers and continued to be cultured.

We were able to grow cardiac muscle cells and nerve cells from iPS cells which was possible by using commercially available reagents. The cardiac muscle cells grew in 8 to 10 days by providing several reagents to the iPS cells. There were several pieces of cardiac muscle cells pulsating in the container. We were able to observe their movements with a microscope. For the nerve cells we used different reagents to grow neural stem cells which took about 8 days. We placed those cells in a container with many electrodes and grew nerve cells for another 10 days. The nerve cells grew by extending thin axons, which composed a network of nerves. We were able to confirm their activity using the electrodes in the container. We also observed the cells by using a special dye.

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Photo by YCAM Bio Research

Though iPS cells are used for regenerative medicine, diagnosis and drug development, they were also used in an artistic approach as a part of a synthesizer in cellF. In the live performance of this work, a human musician preforms music which is fed to the neuron network as electric stimulation. Then, the nerve cells respond by controlling the analog modular synthesizer, which plays sound through 16 speakers. As the musician responds to the nerve cells’ feedback, it becomes an improvised performance between the musician and cellF. It is an experiment that observes how the musician’s performance style affects cellF’s sound and how the musician’s performance changes in response to cellF. This project may provide an important indication of how nerve cells communicate.

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Photo by YCAM Bio Research

4. Discussion – Considering the possibilities

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Though iPS cell technology has various potentials, an open discussion considering its safety and ethical issues is necessary.

Research on iPS cells was carried out in an attempt to overcome the problems surrounding ES cells. For example the problems of transplantation rejection when using donor cells and the ethical issues concerning the use of human early embryos which are fertilized eggs that are 3 days old. On the other hand, researchers are aware that ethical issues concerning iPS cells may also arise depending on how it is applied. For example, research such as growing human organs in animals and making reproductive cells from iPS cells. Creating animals that contain human cells and conceiving children by using eggs and sperm which are made from iPS cells is currently not approved.

Since 2010, genome editing technology has emerged and is relatively easy to alter genes in various organisms with high precision. iPS cell research has also started to incorporate genome editing. Some researches were successful in making iPS cells from a patient’s somatic cells and repairing the iPS cell’s genes by genome editing to grow normal cells.

The developments in biotechnology such as iPS cells and genome editing are expected to be beneficial for our society. However it is also possible that they will bring disadvantages. The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA was held in 1975 where many scientists from worldwide gathered to discuss guidelines for physical containment which impose constraints to the scientists’ research activities but are necessary measures to contain genetically modified organisms. In a similar manner or even taking it a step further, an open discussion on current technology that involves experts from different fields as well as citizens is required now more than ever.

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All photos I took are also available here.

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