Neither MCB nor Dr. Jef Boeke were thinking about art when MCB funded Boeke’s (BOOK-uh) proposal to develop the capacity for creating a fully synthetic genome for common baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) in 2007. The project (0718846-Synthesis and Restructuring of a Yeast Chromosome) was successful, and with continued award funding from MCB, the project harnessed the desires of undergraduate students seeking training in synthetic biology to the study’s need for assembled DNA bases. In 2017, Science Magazine highlighted advances by Boeke’s team in building a synthetic yeast chromosome.
Art arrived on the scene in 2014, when research assistants in the Boeke Lab at New York University began “playing” with yeast in their spare time. By matching the color values of pigmented genes to a digitized image, then applying the output to an agar plate, the students began creating images grown from the pigmented yeast. Boeke credits assistant research technician Jasmine Temple for having the foresight to submit some of the images to art competitions. Graduate student Jerry Wang’s image of Natty Boh, a locally-famous icon in Baltimore, MD, launched the success of Yeast Art as an outreach tool. The images have won numerous awards, including the FASEB 2016 BioArt Competition, and the American Society for Microbiology 2017 Agar Art Competition, and have been featured in the New York Times as well as a variety of scientific journals.
While NSF funds are dedicated solely to the research, the students’ independent efforts have created an opportunity to build public engagement with science. “Sometimes people think it’s a bit flippant but it’s what they remember when they visit the lab,” says Boeke. “But,” he adds, “it’s also great for scientists to see this beautiful thing that’s grown out of research.”
His advice to scientists struggling to add interesting outreach efforts to their research: “You’re probably surrounded by smart and curious undergraduates. Use their curiosity.”
More information about Yeast Art is available on the Website.