by Dr Kathryn Harkup, January 2014.

“Visualising a process is often an import part of understanding. The processes under scientific investigation are often invisible to the naked eye.”

Six artists have been paired with six biomedical researchers to explore concepts of communication. Biological systems have developed complex chemical mechanisms to communicate, control and monitor the diverse processes necessary to keep an organism functioning well. Scientists use their skills to listen in and decipher these signals through painstaking research. Another level of communication is added when scientists transmit their own signals through journals and technical documents. The artists chosen for this project communicate their ideas through video, documentary, installations and animations. All the participants are using different languages but all are trying to make sense of the world around them and communicate it to others.

Our initial outlook on the world may be through maps. We draw lines on maps and put up borders to define areas or landscapes and control or monitor the movement of populations. Infectious diseases see a very different landscape, one of opportunity and competition to infect, multiply and spread. Scientists construct models to represent phenomena and create artificial worlds constructed from established scientific principles that aim to represent and replicate real observations. These models may be computer-based or small-scale representations in the lab or animal studies. Models give us a deep understand of phenomena and help us find patterns and connections.

Dr Paddy Brock studies the transmission of diseases such as malaria and looks to build the equivalent of border crossings to control the spread of infection. To ensure the most effective controls Dr Brock’s looks closely at any potential gaps between the different models of malaria. Working with boredomresearch will transform scientific data to reveal these disease landscapes and show us a world from a disease’s point of view.

We travel from landscapes to dreamscapes. A regular biological beat and rhythm controls our wakefulness throughout the day, it lulls us to sleep at night and gently allows our conscious mind to float up to wakefulness in the morning. In some of us this background ebb and flow of our lives is disjointed and fragmented. It is a task for Ellie Land to guide us through what may seem like a terrifying landscape of dark and frightening concepts using data from Professor Peter Oliver’s research. Professor Oliver’s work helps us understand the genetic and environmental factors affecting sleep and the implications it may have on psychiatric diseases. Using mouse models shows how the clock for sleep can be set forward and the normal ebb and flow of night-time slumber is fragmented by changes in a particular protein. The disrupted sleep pattern is analogous to those seen in schizophrenic patients.

The tour continues inside the body with Genetic Moo who immerses us in the battle of inflammation with Dr Neil Dufton as our guide. Our bodies are constantly on the alert to identify alien invaders and irritants and when they are found a rallying cry spreads through the body. The body throws everything it has at the invaders but such a diverse group of allies in an army must be coordinated and monitored carefully. Messages are received and new instructions sent out at a furious pace using a complex system of signals. The complexity of such a simple biological response needs an array of techniques to distinguish and interpret individual signals against a background of everyday noise. To build up a picture of the battle scene Dr Dufton uses flow cytometry a technique that collects data points from individual cells tagged with a fluorescent marker. The technique is directly analogous to the creation of digital images from thousands of individual pixels utilised in Genetic Moo’s work.

Visualising a process is often an import part of understanding. The processes under scientific investigation are often invisible to the naked eye. The important element may be too small to see, difficult to pick out from the background noise or hidden and illusive. Dr Serge Mostowy uses transparent zebrafish larvae to create a window on the role of septins in the immune response. Fluorescent markers illuminate the protagonists and allow us to watch the scene played out in real time. Green septins loop and twist to form cage-like structures that trap and immobilise the red enemy bacteria. Samantha Moore uses illustration and animation to engage us in this beautifully balletic process.

CD4T cells conduct the orchestra of the body’s immune response, directing and controlling the appropriate response to infection. Our memory CD4T cells have filed in their chemical libraries the identity of previous invaders in the body. They scour the body watching for a repeat invasion ready to unleash a powerful and direct attack on these known pathogens. Dr Megan Macleod investigates when this process breaks down and our immune system memory plays tricks on us. A chemical face in a chemical crowd looks familiar, an attack is launched but it is against friend rather than foe and the results can be painful. Eric Schockmel has transformed this research into the familiar context of gaming illustrating the roles of CD4T cells and how their behaviour is modified by environmental influences.

Underneath it all are we just biological machines following our genetic instructions and running our programmes? It is possible to reduce all living things to a set of instructions written in a simple binary code (G-C, A-T). What is remarkable is how something so simple creates such complexity, diversity and harmony in the living world. Understanding the influence of code on behaviour is the work of Dr Darren Logan who studies the genetic code of mice to understand traits such as aggression and fear. The collaboration between Dr Logan and Charlie Tweed reveals the parallels between their two seemingly very different worlds. The genetic language, read by machines in Dr Logan’s lab and machine code, used by Charlie Tweed in his work, to programme computers have remarkable similarities despite their very different origins and roles.

The Silent Signal collaborations between scientists and artists bring out the subtle interplay and complexity of these systems in a way that we can interact and engage with them. The microscopic part of our everyday existence can be magnified and interpreted to show the extraordinary beauty of these silent signals. The dialogue generated by these collaborations brings a fresh perspective on the world as well as on an individual’s work.

Dr Kathryn Harkup is a chemist trained in York and Nottingham (degree and PhD) with more knowledge of phosphines and phosphorus NMR than is really healthy. For six years Kathryn ran the outreach in engineering, computing, physics and maths at the University of Surrey which involved writing talks on science and engineering topics that would appeal to bored teenagers (anything disgusting or dangerous was usually the most popular).

Kathryn is now a freelance science communicator delivering talks and workshops on the quirky side of science. Talks and workshops have been delivered for schools, pubs and village halls across the South East as well as for organisations such as The Training Partnership and RHS Wisley.

Kathryn has written about range of science topics from poisons to zombies in a magazine article for Skeptic and also in a couple of blogs: a periodic tale and her own blog.