Biotechnology from the Blue Flower

Anna Dumitriu and digital artist Alex May are working with the CHIC Consortium to create a new sculptural bio-digital installation based on an exploration of chicory plant research. The project is entitled “Biotechnology from the Blue Flower” and runs from 2019 – 2022. Chicory is believed to have inspired the notion of the Blue Flower in German Romanticism – a central symbol of the movement. It influenced Goethe’s concept of the ‘urpflanze’ or original or primal plant in his “Metamorphosis of Plants” (and mentioned in Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”). The romantic movement was a reaction to the industrial revolution and held nature and emotion in the highest esteem. But now we are part of a biotechnological revolution and again the chicory plant with its the blue flower becomes an important symbol, but this time in a more complex position at the interface of nature and technology, central to societal explorations of what may be acceptable in terms of synthetic biology, new plant breeding methods and how ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ may be defined in the future.

3D scan of chicory root, credit Anna Dumitriu and Alex May

The artists are exploring the morphology of chicory plants and the uses of CRISPR gene editing and well as the history and cultural impacts of the plants, for example as an ancient remedy or a coffee additive in times of crisis, drawing a thread between the plant’s past and cutting edge contemporary research in the field as well the potential future benefits and risks of working with new plant breeding methods to provide healthcare and food benefits.

Chicory Plants grown from Protoplasts

The artists are focussing on the use of chicory as a potential ‘super crop’ for dietary fibre and its impact the human microbiome, exploring the uses of inulin and medicinal terpenes extracted from Cichorium intybus (common chicory). They are working with the plants themselves: CRISPR modified protoplasts, roots, leaves and flowers, as well as its products such as chicory flour and chicory inulin and terpenes, as well as any other potential materials they might discover on the journey. 

Chicory Protoplasts modified by Anna Dumitriu using CRISPR/Cas9

The final installation will take the form of a 3D printed sculpture of the plant based on based on high resolution photogrammetry scans of the chicory plant clones which the scientists are working with. The artists will explore the external and internal morphologies of the plants and roots, playing with the transition between the real and digital wire-frame forms. The sculpture will contain relics of the CRISPR modified protoplasts and leaves, some of which the artists created themselves in the lab. Projected behind the sculpture will be the chicory genome, edited to remove any repeating DNA sequences (which seem to get added as the plant evolves) in a suggestion of Goethe’s concept of the ‘original plant’.

“Biotechnology from the Blue Flower” in the Art & Science Node App

A new augmented reality work based on this research launched on 27th June 2021 as part of PLANT BIOLOGY EUROPE 2021 via the Art & Science Node app which is available on Google Play and the Apple App store. Normally gene edited plants are not permitted to leave the laboratory in many countries but this piece makes it possible to transgress those rules, at least in a virtual form, in order to experience a world filled with CRISPR modified super-crops.

3D scan of chicory flower, credit Anna Dumitriu and Alex May

“Biotechnology from the Blue Flower” is created by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May as part of the ASN-AIR program 2018-2022 in the CHIC science labs. The residency commission was awarded through Art Science Node. ASN/ASSF is a partner in the CHIC Consortium, CHIC is a research and innovation project supported through the EU Horizon 2020 funding programme.