Fluorescent Microscope Images as Art

One of the faculties at the university I work for is running an ‘Art in Science’ competition this year. Competitions such as these are becoming increasingly common, inviting researchers to submit images they’ve made during their daily research activities. Despite accepting work in all types of media, most often the images are made through photography of some means, whether it be confocal microscopy or photographs of experimental set-ups. The competition being run here is no different, challenging researchers “to look for aesthetic beauty in their experimental work, ranging from fantastic fluorescent images of the cell to photography of science in action within the laboratory.”

These types of competition have always intrigued me. At first I thought they were exactly the sort of competition that suited me, being an artist working in science. During my PhD I made a small oil painting about the proteins I was working on, which failed miserably both as a scientific image and as a piece of aesthetic beauty – I’ve written about this piece previously, in Multimedia Diagrams.

I don’t produce images in my research, unless you include western blots, which as images are black or grey horizontal bands of varying thickness on a pale grey or white background. I have dabbled in fluorescent microscopy – my finest example is shown below: beautifully composed images, good contrast and resolution, yet a wonderfully negative result. In this case the null hypothesis was proven to be correct: there is no difference in the localisation in cells between a particular cell surface receptor and a mutant version of interest.

Comparison of the cellular localisation of a cell surface receptor (‘wild-type’) and the same receptor with a single amino acid substitution (‘mutant’). Cells were stimulated with an appropriate agonist (drug, broadly speaking), or unstimulated, then permeabilised to permit entry of the antibody for detection of the receptor, or unpermeabilsed. The final two images show that the receptor is taken into the cell in response to stimulation. No difference was observed between the wild-type and mutant receptors.

Art for me should be thought-provoking and give the viewer insight into the world that they weren’t already aware of: it should speak to the viewer on some level. All it asks in return is a little time for contemplation and consideration. Wiktionary gives a wide range of definitions of ‘art’, and includes a quote from Alexander Brouwer, who defines visual art as the “deliberate or conscious arrangement or creation of elements like colours, forms, movements, sounds, objects or other elements that produce a graphic or plastic whole that expresses thoughts, ideas or visions of the artist” (Extended Essay on Visual Art, 2009). He also acknowledges that visual art holds “a subjective understanding or perception of the viewer.” The experience of being an observer is as important in the artwork as the artist’s experience of making the work.

The premise of the ‘Scientific Images as Art’ competitions is that the images submitted should have been made whilst doing science, that is to say they are not made as ‘art’. The focus of the image may centre around a particular component, maybe giving the image a less visually appealing or balanced composition. The image may have been made for a scientific paper to illustrate a key finding, or indeed as one piece of data in a large dataset to be quantified and presented in a different format, such as a graph. I wonder, can an image made or taken as part of a scientific enquiry also have an intentional aesthetic quality, allowing it to be viewed as art in its own right? Can an image produced for a scientific audience also appeal to an audience in a different context, such as in an art exhibition?

In my own experience of making the images shown above, I certainly noted a difference in my approach. My tendency is to default to having my artist’s hat on, my eye drawn to aesthetically-pleasing cells, rather than those expressing reasonable amounts of my protein of interest. Having said that, the more I look at the cells above, particularly the first six, taken for ‘scientific’ reasons, the more interesting each becomes. Each sharp green ring takes on a form of its own – the outline of a small organism or perhaps a cloud with sunlight peeking from behind.

These types of fluorescent green-on-black images are so iconic for cell biologists, I wondered how the image would change if the colours were different. Here, I’ve merely inverted the colours using Photoshop. The image now begins to speak for itself. It’s no longer ‘about’ the expression of a cell surface receptor, but instead becomes whatever the mind of the viewer makes it.

Confocal fluorescent microscopy image of a single HEK-293 cell, stained for an over-expressed cell surface receptor. The colours have been inverted using Adobe Photoshop.

Researchers in the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, can submit their images and films for The Art of Science 2012 competition until 4pm on Friday, 2nd November.

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