One of the troubles of my PhD studies I found was that it became increasingly difficult to talk to anyone without a cell biology background about my research. I wondered whether I could use my research as a subject for my paintings, so using painting as a tool to describe my work.
My research concerned a family of lipid transfer proteins, called the PITPs. The lipids that these proteins transport are phospholipids, which have two hydrophobic fatty acid tails. Whereas the head group is hydrophilic and is oriented towards the aqueous cytosol, extracellular medium or inside organelles, the fatty acids are shielded by being embedded into the membrane.
In the following two paintings, I used hairpins and clothes pegs to represent the phospholipid molecules in a lipid bilayer.
In another painting, I attempted to describe the interaction of two membrane proteins, the Angiotensin II type 1 receptor (AT1R) and the AT1R-associated protein, ATRAP. These proteins have seven and three transmembrane domains, respectively. When I drew these domains as a regular structure in the membrane, they reminded me of traditional cast iron radiators. In reality the relationship between the transmembrane domains would be much less regular. This painting was shown in the exhibition, Research Images as Art / Art Images as Research (UCL, 2009).
Like Chinese whispers, the repetition of the clothes pegs in this painting has caused the phospholipids to look more like dead flies or sleeping bats. To avoid this loss of structure, I used laser-printed photographs as paper collage on calico.
This process was continued into a larger work, combined with acrylic paint and sewn into with cotton thread. The PITPs also feature in this paintings, here working to enrich the forming vesicle in phosphorylated PI species. This process of vesicle formation is a dynamic process in cells, not necessarily well-captured in the painting. Instead, the forms are reminiscent of a nineteenth-century botanical illustration.
In the last in this series of paintings, I thought about the PITPs in terms of an enclosure, a bubble protecting the lipid from the aqueous environment.