Silent Signal: The Scientific Themes

by Dr Kathryn Garner, December 2015.

“Silent Signal explores the diversity of signals implicit in nature, from the those provided in the DNA code present in every cell of our bodies, up to the whole organism scale.”

Signal transmission underpins all life. DNA provides the code for making proteins; proteins are miniature machines that carry out specialised functions within cells; cells communicate with one another through the exchange of small molecular messages. The Signal and the Noise explores scientist Dr Darren Logan’s use of DNA sequencing alongside behavioural studies in mice to understand how DNA, proteins and the wiring of the nervous system shape our perception of smell. With so much information in the environment, how is it possible to distinguish a single smell from all the noise? Artist Charlie Tweed noticed parallels with computer programming; Dr Logan uses new CRISPR technology to ‘comment out’ sequences of DNA allowing him to understand the involvement of candidate genes in the sensing of smells.

A cycle of protein machines underlies the circadian rhythm: the synthesis of one protein factor stimulates the production of a second, which in turn stimulates production of a third, and at the same time feeds back to turn off production of the first. This natural cycle is trained in line with light and dark in the environment so that our bodies know when the best time to sleep is. However, anyone who has tried to go to sleep while struggling with a problem knows that our thought processes can override this. Sleepless explores scientist Professor Peter Oliver’s interest in how this perturbation is exacerbated in mental health conditions, particularly in Schizophrenia.

Our bodies are challenged by invading microbes on a daily basis; many are brushed away without any trouble by our immune systems, but some present more of a struggle. Battle of Blister explores the conflict between bacteria and different types of immune cells recruited to a pus-filled blister. In his research in this area, Dr Neil Dufton uses flow cytometry and 3D confocal imaging. Both methods use fluorescent tags or probes to label a particular cell component of interest, often a protein, picking out glimmers of specific information in the dark.

In order for our immune systems to fight an infection, the invader needs to be identified, tagged and isolated. Shigella flexneri (a bacterium that can cause diarrhoea) is particularly adept at overcoming the body’s defences, and chooses to shelter inside cells. Loop explores scientist Dr Serge Mostowy’s work using zebrafish as a model organism to examine how septin cages are built around invading microbes inside cells. Cage assembly activates a sequence of events to ensure elimination of the prisoner. Animated documentary maker Samantha Moore highlights in her film how differently members of Dr Mostowy’s research group communicate their own understanding of septin cage assembly.

Some immune cells have the ability to form a memory of a pathogen they have seen before; the next time they meet the invader they are immediately able to mount the best defence to dispense of them. Chemical messages in their environment alert the cells to the invader, and tell them where to find them. Immunecraft takes the form of a fictional video game to explore the research undertaken by scientist Dr Megan MacLeod into the switch between naïve and memory forms of these CD4 T-cells.

Plasmodium, the parasites responsible for malaria, must live in specific species of mosquito and animal hosts at key stages of their development. Scientist Dr Paddy Brock creates mathematical models of the transmission of P. knowlesi, which is unusual in its ability to switch its primate host between humans and macaques. AfterGlow traces the packets of blood and parasites carried by mosquitoes as spiralling forms on an island locked in perpetual twilight.

Silent Signal explores the diversity of signals implicit in nature, from the those provided in the DNA code present in every cell of our bodies, through chemical messages passed between cells enabling them to work together effectively, up to the whole organism scale, in the transmission of parasites between hosts. The necessity for signals is unavoidable: communication didn’t stop with the biological subjects but enabled the scientists and animators to work together, and was required in the coding of their digital films.

Dr Kathryn Garner studied BA (hons) Fine Art at Falmouth College of Arts, during which time she discovered cell biology through the brightly coloured microscopy images in biology textbooks. After working on an insect farm breeding crickets, followed by a role freezing sperm at a London infertility clinic, she returned to study, gaining a BSc (hons) Molecular Cell Biology and a PhD Physiology from University College London. In her current role as a Research Associate at the University of Bristol, she carries out research into the signalling pathways downstream of Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH), which is central to the control of reproduction. She makes artwork about how our bodies function at the molecular level and writes a blog about painting, drawing and molecular biology.