The Colorful Side of the Lab Bench
Winners of the Penn “Art in Science” competition talk art, science, and how the two intertwine.
By Liisa Hantsoo
Bright blue splotches overlay a cluster of reddish-black rounds. An abstract expressionist piece? Or human dendritic cells nucleofected with HIV-1 envelope? A recent exhibition at the Perelman School of Medicine pondered the parallels between the visual arts and scientific images. The exhibition images were part of the first annual “Art in Science” competition, sponsored by the Office of the Executive Vice Dean. The competition was open to Penn biomedical researchers, and the Office selected three postdoctoral and three graduate student winners. The Office stated that they received a multitude of “scientifically intriguing and aesthetically striking images” from the Penn scientific community. I interviewed our three postdoctoral winners to get their take on science, art, and how the two intertwine.
1st Place: “Skin mucosal immunoglobulins in fish: controlling the “alien” pathogens,” by Daniela Gómez Atria, Sunyer Lab.
Photo Credit: Daniela Gómez Atria
Dr. Gomez’s piece features a green facelike image, pointillated with purple and blue. While it resembles an alien countenance, the image is actually immunoglobulin T (IgT), an ancient mucosal immunoglobulin of fish, surrounding an Ichthyophthirius multifiliis trophont (a ciliated protozoan in its adult life stage) on the skin of an infected rainbow trout. IgT is stained in green, the I. multifiliis trophont is stained in magenta, and epidermal cell nuclei are stained in blue.
Gomez’s research was performed in the laboratory of Dr. Oriol Sunyer in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Their lab studies the immune system using the rainbow trout as a model. In this project, Gomez and colleagues wanted to examine the evolutionary origins of mucosal immune defenses in the skin, to show that adaptive immune responses in the skin of fish share common features with mammalian mucosal immune responses. The researchers showed that IgT, a fish immunoglobulin analogous to mammalian mucosal IgA, is present in the skin mucus of rainbow trout in a relatively high ratio compared to other immunoglobulins. Furthermore, 60% of the B cells isolated from the trout skin were IgT positive, and IgT was found covering a great percentage of skin bacteria, suggesting a key role in controlling skin microbiota. In studying the trout’s immune response against the skin parasite I. multifiliis, the researchers found that IgT positive B cells accumulated in the skin epidermis after infection, that IgT was the major parasite-specific immunoglubin in the skin mucus, and that IgT was able to cover I. multifiliis allocated in the skin epidermis (depicted in the image). Gomez states that altogether, this study suggested that mucosal immune responses in vertebrates are based in conserved primordial principles.
Gomez’s image is part of a series of images published in the paper “Teleost skin, an ancient mucosal surface that elicits gut-like immune responses (Xu, Parra, Gómez et al. 2013) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). She is currently completing a second postdoc in Dr. Gudrun Debes’ laboratory, also at the vet school, to study immune responses in skin with mammalian models.
2nd place: “The characterization of 2,472 human orthologs of mouse essential genes in terms of their evolutionary and population genetics properties using data from recent deep sequencing initiatives in human populations,” by Benjamin Georgi, Bucan Lab.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Georgi
Dr. Georgi, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Maja Bucan’s lab in the Department of Genetics, focuses on bioinformatics. His image resulted from a study of the population genetic properties of essential genes in humans. Georgi explained that “Using a list of essential genes derived from mouse phenotyping data, we could show that these genes are subject to strong purifying selection in humans, and show a potential role in Autism spectrum disorder.” Georgi stated that the image he created incorporated an image of a mouse embryo originally taken by Staci Rakowiecki, who “very graciously” gave him permission to use it in the competition. Georgi chose to superimpose a DNA sequence over the embryo to represent how the development of an organism is determined largely by its genetic code. The DNA sequence was taken from a calcium channel gene (CACNA1A) that is implicated in bipolar disorder, one of the research foci in Bucan’s lab.
“Combining science and art can produce strikingly beautiful pieces… It is also a great way for scientists to engage and communicate their work to a broader audience.”
The image was meant to capture the overall idea of their study: to analyze genes that are essential in the mouse and to analyze the corresponding genes (orthologs) in humans. The red nucleotide in the middle is a mutation that impacts development. The image is associated with a recent article by Georgi in PloS Genetics (http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pgen.1003484) that focused on the role of essential genes in human disease.
Georgi reflected on the role of visual imagery in science, stating that “Combining science and art can produce strikingly beautiful pieces (as the other submissions to the contest have shown)… It is also a great way for scientists to engage and communicate their work to a broader audience.”
3rd place: “Human dendritic cells nucleofected with HIV-1 envelope,” by Angela Conde, Weissman Lab.
Photo Credit: Angela Conde
When she’s not working to identify lead candidates for an HIV-1 Env-based vaccine in Drew Weissman’s lab, Dr. Angela Conde enjoys photography and oil painting. While she is a scientist by profession, she says that she’s long been involved in the arts. Perhaps this explains why her bright purpley-blue and red image is so visually striking. The image was generated to examine subcellular localization of HIV envelope (in purple) on the dendritic cell plasma membrane (in red). Conde explained that “Dendritic cells were used because they are antigen-presenting cells (APCs): they display antigens like HIV-1 envelope (HIV-1 Env) on their surface so that other cells of the immune system (like T cells or B cells) can detect the antigen and mount an immune response. We are hoping to increase expression of HIV-1 Env on the cell surface so it is more ‘visible’ to the immune system by making mutations in the Env protein sequence. As you can see, there isn’t much there to begin with; the purple is hard to see versus the red of the dendritic cell plasma membrane.”
Conde described a series of complicated techniques to get this image. “I had the idea of using widefield fluorescence microscopy to track where HIV-1 Env goes when we introduce it into cells. It would hopefully get to the cell surface, but we don’t know that for sure. If it is localized somewhere else inside the cell (such as in endosomes), we could use that information to potentially coax it out of hiding. This was a pretty tricky experiment, technically. First, we had to procure primary human monocytes from the Human Immunology Core — they get blood donors every week and researchers can request a number of specific cell types. Then I grew the cells for about a week in cell culture media with cytokines added to differentiate the monocytes into dendritic cells. I then nucleofected HIV-1 Env into the dendritic cells, and the next day used antibodies to stain for DNA/nuclei (blue color), the dendritic cell membrane (red color) and HIV-1 Env (purple color). I then had to mount the cells onto special coverslips, mounting medium, and slides used for widefield microscopy. The images were taken on a Zeiss widefield microscope.”
On the intersection of art and science, Conde said “I think that science has a place in art and vice versa, especially in the age of digital images. This image wasn’t originally intended to be an artistic piece, but I think both scientists and non-scientists alike can appreciate its worth.”
Much like an artist’s painstaking and time-intensive process, scientists put a great deal of energy and technical skill into producing an image that conveys their scientific findings. Artists and scientists alike are attempting to convey some idea or premise to their audience. The best of science images not only convey a scientific result, but also are aesthetically striking. While most scientific images may be of particular interest to other scientists, when creatively done an image can be a great vehicle for garnering interest in scientific research in a broader audience.
The full-sized images are on display in the Office of the Executive Vice Dean.
Xu Z, Parra D, Gómez D, Salinas I, Zhang YA, von Gersdorff Jørgensen L, Heinecke RD, Buchmann K, Lapatra S, Sunyer JO. (2013). Teleost skin, an ancient mucosal surface that elicits gut-like immune responses. PNAS. 110(32): 13097–13102. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1304319110).
Georgi B, Voight BF, Bućan M. (2013). From mouse to human: evolutionary genomics analysis of human orthologs of essential genes. PLoS Genet. 9(5):e1003484. (http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pgen.1003484)
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