Category Archives: Science Gallery

Genesis. Hacking extremophiles

Extremophiles are organisms that can withstand such unforgiving conditions that they’ve survived every mass extinction on earth and are expected to be the first sort of extraterrestrial life space explorers might discover one day.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Geothermal hotspring, Iceland 2016. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

What designer and artist Xandra van der Eijk found fascinating about these tiny and simple organisms is not just their remarkable sturdiness but the fact that they modify their colour when their environment change.

In her research project Genesis, the designer studied their color properties. First she traveled to Iceland and France where she sampled fluids from volcanic hot springs and high saline ponds and isolated strains that produce pigments. She then collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen, to understand and eventually influence the pigment production of the microbes, inducing color change over time. “With Genesis, Xandra is hacking the origin of life, ultimately questioning who is in control.”

I discovered the work of van der Eijk a few months ago when she exhibited As Above, So Below at the Artefact festival in Leuven, Belgium. The research project explored the possibility to “crowdmine” stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals.

I caught up with the designer and artist to talk about space mining without going to space and about controlling or being controlled by microorganisms. If you’re curious about her experiments with colour-changing extremophiles, check out her installation at the Science Gallery in Dublin where it is part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate our future on a planet exposed to increasingly unstable environmental conditions. In the meantime, here’s what our little Q&A looked like:


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

Science Gallery Dublin where the work is exhibited as part of Life at the Edges, a show that explores survival in extreme environment, helping us contemplate what our own future on a planet Earth battling with increasingly unstable environmental conditions.

Hi Xandra! For Genesis, you took samples from volcanic hot springs. They contained extremophiles, ancient micro-organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and also produce pigments. I found it fascinating that these tiny creatures produce pigments. Could you tell us about the kind of pigment they produce and how they make it?

I think ‘how’ they make it is a big mystery still, but these specific organisms have developed the production of pigments as a sort of defense mechanism to sunlight. The UV can get really intense, and the pigments are like sunscreen to them!

Why did you want to manipulate the color of these microbes?

First I wanted to show their mere existence and tell their story to the public. The organisms are so small, they can only be seen under the microscope. The fact that they produce color brought me to the idea that their existence would become visible through cultivating large numbers. In my projects I research the interrelation between the subject and myself, myself being a standing for human kind. I found an organism that would change color depending on specific circumstances, and I was curious if I could manipulate this metamorphosis.


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk


Xandra van der Eijk, Genesis. Image: Xandra van der Eijk

And how did you change their colour? Could you describe the work process and explain the kind of techniques and technology you used to do so?

I have no biology background, so I sought help to understand the ways of the extremophiles and well, microbiology in general. I found it at WAAG Society, where a bunch of great people were willing to show me the ropes. Together with Federico Muffatto I set up a series of experiments trying to isolate and cultivate certain species. And later on with Arnold Driessen of Groningen University I set out another series of experiments figuring out the exact parameters needed for color change. Different organisms produce pigments reacting to different parameters, so it’s hard to give one conclusive answer. But in general, the extremophiles have an ideal environment for growth, and when something in this environment changes, they may react in color change. Think about changes in water temperature, UV intensity or salinity.

Do you think that since they are able to survive or even thrive under extreme conditions, extremophiles could teach humans a thing or two about surviving in increasingly unfavourable environments?

Maybe! For now I am mostly admiring these tiny organisms that can do something we can’t. But who knows what we can learn and adapt from them by studying their behavior. I think it is a very interesting and promising field of research.

For this work, you collaborated with Arnold Driessen, a professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Groningen. Could you tell us about this collaboration and in particular how his feedback guided your own work?

And conversely, what you think he might have maybe gained from your artistic perspective on molecular biology? (i can rephrase that one if you think it’s a bit clumsy or too narrow a question)

My experience with Arnold so far has been very positive. There is a very open attitude in the overall collaboration from both sides. The reason why we collaborate is because he leads a research group focused on extremophiles, so we have a strong mutual interest. It has been truly great to find someone so knowledgeable about the subject, it gives my research a clear outline of what is possible and what isn’t, and what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s too early to say anything about what the project might mean for his own research, but I am lucky that Arnold sees the added value of art in general. He is even somewhat of an artist himself, he takes amazing wildlife photographs!

Why did you call the work “Genesis”? How does the work relate to the Biblical description of the origin of the earth?

It is called that way because we believe extremophiles to be one of the earliest lifeforms on earth, perhaps even the very first — maybe they even traveled here as aliens from outer space. The piece is about who is in control: human or microbe. In that sense I like the biblical reference. In many ways these extremophiles are superior to us. And it’s no secret that microbes control our decision making process…


Genesis at Science Gallery Dublin. Installation view

I’m still hoping i can catch the exhibition Life at the Edges at the Science Gallery in Dublin but so far i haven’t found the time to travel and visit it. How do you exhibit the work there? What does the installation look like and how does it communicate its meaning?

The exhibition shows the very first step towards a more developed artwork. Working with living material in an exhibition environment is really hard, especially if you are not looking for a lab-setup. I wanted to recreate the manmade landscape of the salt harvesting area’s where I took samples from, as it is a beautiful and rare example of how man and nature can work together and both profit from it. It is one of the eldest manmade landscapes in history, and the process hasn’t changed much over time. Basically we still harvest salt like the Romans did — creating a large biodiversity in the pools. At the Science Gallery I show a grid of nine square glass containers, all with partly filled with the same extremophiles, but in different circumstances. After setting the parameters, the containers are left alone and the organisms show their response towards the parameters in colors and patterns.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

I’d like also to ask you something about another of your work As Above, So Below. I love that one. It’s both charming and very smart. The work is a research into crowdmining stardust fallen onto the surface of the earth as a new source for rare earth metals. For the work, you collaborated with Kirstie van Noort to harvest stardust from the urban environment. How did you identify and collect stardust? How difficult is it to then extract the micrometeorite particles?

It is actually an urban myth, collecting stardust on the streets and from the roofs. The first amateur scientist who really proved their existence was Jon Larsen, and he has fought hard and long for the recognition of their existence. We were inspired by his work and took the idea one step further: what if we would collectively take the effort to collect stardust — what kind of materials would we find and could they form a new resource of precious metals? We took to the roof and the streets, collected a lot of dirt basically, and dried it out. From the dust we sorted small spherical particles and examined them under the microscope. We do not claim we found any, although the project shows a selection of specimens that might be, and one we are quite sure of. But we still need to find a university who would be willing to collaborate with us and find out about what we found. In the end, I guess we were most surprised by how much you can find in your own backyard, whether it’s from outer space or not.


Kirstie van Noort & Xandra van der Eijk, As Above, So Below. Photo by Ronald Smits Photography

Could this practice become, over time, a viable alternative to traditional raw materials dug up from the earth at great ecological costs or mined in space?

I don’t see it as a replacement for large deposits of earths metals and minerals, rather as a possible resource for small quantities of precious metals, and perhaps even of materials that we don’t know yet. Who knows what role they could play in our technology, where sometimes only very small quantities are needed due to very specific characteristics of a metal or mineral.

What is next for you? Any upcoming event, fields of research or project you would like to share with us?

I presented a whole new research into chemical dumping called Future Remnants in April, which I am still working on and presenting a lot. It’s been nominated for the New Material Award. I am already working on something new that will be presented at Dutch Invertuals in October and of course I will continue my research with Groningen University. Many other nice things ahead, it’s a crazy rollercoaster of a life that I am enjoying a lot!

Thanks Xandra!

Genesis is part of Life at the Edges. You have until until 30 September to visit the exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin.

Also part of the show: Drosophila Titanus by Andy Gracie.

When is fake ‘even better than the real thing’?


DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Matt Kenyon, Giant Pool of Money, 2016. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin, invites us to leave behind our prejudices when considering the simulated, the artificial and the fictitious.

“Fake” is a word that pops up ad nauseam in social, political and economic contexts. It is often associated with low quality goods, forged artworks, earnings of dubious origins, polite orgasms, Trump bombastic ‘rhetoric’ (or rather lack thereof), etc.

The curators of the exhibition, however, challenge us to spend time examining the multiple facets of the fake and to reconsider any assumption we might have about it:

From fake meat to fake emotions, if faking it gets the job done, who cares? In both the natural world and human society, faking, mimicking and copying can be a reliable strategy for success. When the focus is on how things appear, a fake may be just as valuable as the real thing. But what about replicating taste, emotions, chemical signatures, facts and trademarks? Have patents, politics, and art given copying a bad name? From biomimicry to forged documents, from scandals to substitutes, Fake asks when authenticity is essential, when copying is cool, and what the boundary is between a fakery faux-pas and a really fantastic Fake.

FAKE is your typical Science Gallery Dublin exhibition. It puzzles, informs, puts you out of your comfort zone at least once and it entertains you in the process.

Many of the dimensions of the fake are analysed and discussed in the show but the one that ended up staying with me after i had left Dublin looked at the ruses and strategies deployed by animals and plants to deceive each other. In the video recording of a joint talk they gave at the Science Gallery in March, Fiona Newell and Nicola Marples bring to light some of the sneaky tricks used by plants as well as human and non-human animals:

Fiona Newell, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Nicola Marples, Professor in Zoology, Trinity College Dublin talking about deception in the natural world

The presentation is absolutely fascinating. The superstar among all those creatures of treachery is not the human being but the mimic octopus, a species of octopus capable of impersonating other local species:

Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

Let’s remain in the company of cephalopods and dive into the exhibition itself:


Ryuta Nakajima, Cuttle 61

Like other cephalopods, cuttlefish are masters of shape and shade shifting when they need to camouflage themselves in the background. Ryuta Nakajima attempted to push the cognitive and interpretive system of cuttlefish camouflage patterns to their limits by decorating aquaria with computer-generated images of famous visual artworks. His installations shows how the creatures responded to art reproductions. The conclusion of the artistic experiment is probably that the cuttlefish didn’t see the artworks as worthy of any mimicking effort.


Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018


Barrett Klein with Joey Stein, Paul Clements, Ryan Taylor, Faux Frogs. Research models of calling male frogs, 2005—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Robotic Frog Attracting Potential Mate. In the video a female tungara frog approaches a robofrog inflating its vocal sac. The female can also hear recorded mating calls playing

Ecologists can also deploy deceptive strategies when studying animal species.

Science collaborators Ryan Taylor and Michael Ryan were studying the túngara frogs in Panama and they wanted to understand the connections between multimodal signaling (using more than one sensory cue) and mate selection. Behaviourist Barrett Klein built ‘faux frogs’ (a.k.a. ‘robofrogs’) to assist them in their cheeky field studies. As the video above demonstrates, the artificial amphibians successfully fooled real female túngara frogs. When choosing a potential mate, these ladies listen to the sounds of the male calls but they are also sensitive to the sight of the male frogs inflating their vocal sacs.


Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Heather Beardsley, Die Sammlung/The Collection, 2017

Heather Beardsley’s collection of decidedly odd creatures proposes that we stop and reflect on the contrasting frameworks of museums and art galleries.

Museums use display conventions developed over time to communicate knowledge to a non-expert audience. These conventions convey the importance of the objects, but do not invite critical thinking. Contemporary art galleries, on the other hand, challenge viewers to think critically about the artifacts and decide whether or not they have any intrinsic value.

Beardsley lined up a series of animal specimens inside antique jars in a museum display. Some are hand-made reproductions of real animals. The others are actual biological creratures.

By installing these specimens together, the artist encourages viewers to question the hierarchical system they are used to and think more critically about museum displays.


Patricia Pisanelli, Stretching Cheese, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Patricia Pisanelli‘s wall of square slices of processed cheese makes us question the border between fake and authentic. How much fake are you allowed to use in a food product for it to remain authentic? In the case of cheese, the answer is 51%.

Slices of processed cheese are made from cheese (and sometimes other dairy by-product ingredients), emulsifiers, saturated vegetable oils, salt, food colouring, whey or sugar. If the product contains at least 51% cheese, it can be called cheese food. Less than 51% and the slices have to be labelled as “cheese product.”

Because there are so many processes and ingredients that enter into the production of these slices, they end up presenting different flavors, colors and textures. The artist chose slices from different brands. The assemblage is changing gradually over time. The colour of some of the slices is slowly fading under the light. Stains appear on others. Some seem to dry up inside their flimsy plastic wrapping. Others remain defiantly immutable.


James Shaw, Modular Mechanics Hairy Armchair, 2017

James Shaw‘s armchair is a bit maddening. It’s made from both natural and synthetic materials: ash timber, plastic timber, brass, real sheepskin and faux fur. I inspected it with great care and i was unable to distinguish what was organic and what was imitating the organic. Which sums up the reality around us: it’s made of real and fake. They are so intermingled, so good at imitating each other that we struggle to separate one from the other.


Finn Mullan, True & False, 2017—2018. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Although it doesn’t deal at all with the organic, i need to mention Finn Mullan‘s Bastardville font because it addressed in a very literal and smart way the kind of mental association recent events have caused us to make when we hear the word “Fake.”

The font was inspired by a study that U.S. documentary film director Errol Morris made back in 2013. The research attempted to find out what typeface is considered to be the most believable, the most likely to convince us that a sentence is true. It turned out that Baskerville was considered the most reliable.

Broken down until it becomes barely legible, the Baskerville gradually turns into Bastardville. The battered typeface echoes the truth eroded in the post-truth era. In the Post-Truth age, no typeface, not even the most convincing one, can save the truth from corrosion and decay.

And if you’re curious about how typefaces can shape perception, you might enjoy this episode of Word of Mouth.

More works and installation views from FAKE:


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present


Morten Rockford Ravn, Fear and Loathing in GTA V, 2015 — present


Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Janez Janša Bottles, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


DISNOVATION.ORG, Shanzhai Archeology, 2017. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Isaac Monté & Toby Kiers, The Art of Deception, 2015. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Unknown, Fake Fake Alien Autopsy Head, 1996. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL?. Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

Also part of the exhibition: Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’ and The Phylogenetic Atelier: Would your wear clothes made of the skin of de-extinct species?

The exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? remains open at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.

The Phylogenetic Atelier: Would your wear clothes made of the skin of de-extinct species?


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

We’re going to see a living breathing woolly mammoth soon! Because members of de-extinction circles made us big, confident promises and because media enthusiasm and sleek videos confirmed their words.

Except that the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Scientists are not really going to “resurrect” the long extinct species. The plan is rather to create a GMO. The main strategy adopted by researchers today consists in using cells from the closest living species (in this case the Asian elephant) and edit their genes to obtain DNA as close as possible to that of the extinct animal. The result will be a hybrid organism that carries the genetic material from both species. It won’t be exactly the same hairy mammal as the old one.


Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in captivity in 1914, leading to the extinction of her species. She is now being displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo via

A similar copy-pasting exercise in gene editing is going to be applied to other extinct species. The Passenger Pigeon is one of the promising candidate for ‘resurrection’. The migratory bird was by far the most common bird in the United States. It traveled in flocks so huge and so dense that people at the time described how they would darken the skies for hours when they flew over heads. Unfortunately, unbridled hunting and destruction of its habitat reduced the population to a few individuals by the late 19th century. A few decades later the bird was extinct.

By modifying the DNA of the band-tailed pigeon, its closest living relative, the research group Revive & Restore is hoping to hatch the first “passenger pigeon” (or rather its genetic approximation) by 2025.

Critics are concerned about the ethical issues of de-extinction: Are the animals impregnated with manufactured embryos going to be be safe? How can the newborn enjoy a social life similar to the one experienced by passenger pigeons (or mammoths)? Does their habitat still exist as it was? How do you scale the process up so that the whole species has a reasonable chance of survival? How do you avoid problems associated with inbreeding? Shouldn’t our efforts and funding be focused on keeping alive the many plant and animal species that are endangered?


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

With her work The Phylogenetic Atelier, critical and speculative scenario designer Tina Gorjanc is asking whether producing ‘fake’ copies of an extinct animal is an attempt to understand the past, or just an excuse to constantly create the desire for rarity

Her installation stages the aftermath of a successful Revive & Restore’s Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback project. The work suggests a speculative venue that combines a museum, a laboratory and a luxury artisan workshop that in the future will craft gloves out of the leather of fake passenger pigeons. Gorjanc’s installation is exquisite, intriguing but also remarkable for the way it makes tangible the many ethical dilemmas of our fascination with producing new replacements for extinct or endangered biological matter.

In the future, the “passenger pigeon” leather would become a luxury item for the few who are rich enough to afford a pair, prompting the question: Is the de-extinction movement about restoring biodiversity or about producing a few curiosity specimens for the enjoyment of novelty enthusiasts?

The project description explains:

As our current society is becoming mostly driven by the aspiration to constantly innovate it is starting to lack the ability to analyze the cultural understanding of what we are experiencing in the process of innovating. Old definition and stereotypes of original and fake, natural and synthetic, alive and dead are becoming obsolete as new discoveries in the field of synthetic biology are being made.


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

The Phylogenetic Atelier is one of the many thought-provoking works you can see at FAKE: The Real Deal?, a free exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin that asks if life is better when we embrace the artificial. I contacted the fashion designer and asked her to tell us more about her project:

Hi Tina! The work ‘showcases an intersection of a laboratory, a museum and a luxury artisan glove workshop”. Why did you choose these 3 settings? What is the role of each facility?

I decided to speculate on a possible intersection of those practices base on the research I have done which evidences that the interest of our commercial market is moving towards such collaborations. The discoveries that have been done in the field of biotech in the past couple of decades are making this technology more accessible and interesting to a wider spectre of companies outside the pharmaceutical and medical domain.

The Phylogenetic Atelier project, therefore, aims to showcase how the advances in the field of synthetic biology and tissue engineering could be applied to preservation and revitalization of endangered/extinct species and form a new type of collaboration with natural history museums that might provide a rich amount of “raw” material for those practices.

The reason for the incorporation of the luxury artisan glove workshop into the presented system mainly has to do with my desire to facilitate the debate around the issues the project is trying to expose.

By simplifying the debate to a de-extinct leather material rather than the entire organism which represents a far more complex classification problem, the project aims to promote critical thoughts around the way we will interact with the de-extinct material and how we are going to shape different aspects of our society around them (legislation, ethical rules and concerns,…) when they suddenly become more mainstream.

Additionally, as the craftsmanship of leather gloves also represents an endangered practice doomed to extinction due to the direction of our commercial market, as well as gloves, being closely linked to the breeding and training of avian species I thought it would be an appropriate base to frame the output of the project.


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin


Tina Gorjanc, The Phylogenetic Atelier. Exhibition view at FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? Photo credits: Science Gallery Dublin

The Phylogenetic Atelier is a very seducing exhibit. It’s difficult not to admire the craft and the sheer beauty of the ‘leather’ and the glove. Yet, i think you also wanted to suggest something more complex, more critical and a bit darker about de-extinction. Could you comment on this? What did you want the audience to take from the exhibit?

As our current society is becoming mostly driven by the aspiration to constantly innovate it is, unfortunately, starting to lack the ability to analyze the cultural understanding of what we are experiencing in the process of innovating. Old definition and stereotypes of original and fake, natural and synthetic, alive and dead are becoming obsolete as new discoveries in the field of synthetic biology are being made.
The research behind the proposed work tackles the ethical and philosophical dilemmas concerning our fascination with producing new replacements for extinct or endangered biological matter and their application in our current world.
The aim of the project is to provoke a debate and encourage the audience to start asking themselves questions such as our right as a species to give back the biological specimens that we have taken away from nature? If we can do it also mean that we should? If you could bring back one extinct animal which one would it be and why?

Thanks Tina!

The Phylogenetic Atelier was developed as a commission from the Science Gallery Dublin, part of the Trinity College Dublin. It is part of the exhibition FAKE: The Real Deal? which remains open at the Science Gallery Dublin until the 3rd of June 2018.

Also part of the exhibition: Vapour Meat: a helmet to vape the essence of ‘clean meat’.