Fermenting Futures

“Fermenting Futures” (2021) is a body of work by artists Anna Dumitriu and Alex May that explores the significance of yeast biotechnology from a cultural and aesthetic perspective, engaging audiences in the history and future of this important, but under-recognised, field. The work has been created in collaboration with Professor Diethard Mattanovich, Professor Michael Sauer, Dr. Özge Ata and Dr. Martin Altvater at the Institute of Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Austria.

“Fermenting Futures”

The project premiered at the 15th International Congress on Yeasts online on 24th August 2021 with an extensive linked physical exhibition programme currently in development, and a paper on the project was recently accepted for publication by FEMS (Federations of European Microbiology Societies) Yeast Research (Oxford University Press, UK). It will be exhibited as part of several major physical exhibitions in 2022.

“Fermenting Futures” was a winner in the 2021 Falling Walls Art and Science Category.

The team paper have co-authored a paper “Fermenting Futures: an artistic view on yeast biotechnology” for FEMS (Federation of European Microbiology Societies) Yeast Research, published in August 2021 and there is a related blog post on the FEMS Blog by Özge Ata.

“Fermenting Futures” installation view

Yeast is a workhorse of biotechnology nowadays and used at the heart of synthetic biology research for outcomes as diverse as food production, beer and wine production, vaccine manufacture, plastic production and carbon capture. From ancient times it has been integral to human life and some historians even believe that the ability of one yeast to ferment alcohol led to the development of human settlements, as people needed to stay near and farm their crops to make beer.

“Fermenting Futures” installation view

The central artwork in the series explores and physically contains a CRISPR modified Pichia pastoris yeast that is simultaneously able to capture carbon and output lactic acid for the manufacture of biodegradable PLA plastic – for 3D printing. The sculpture comprises a glass vessel containing the bubbling modified yeast, sustained by a mass of tubes. 3D printed yeast forms, including one which incorporates the yeast-produced PLA plastic swarm across the container.

The yeast created PLA

The artwork extends two research projects in the Institute of Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, which use genetic modification techniques and directed evolution. This work brings together various areas of yeast research and points towards efforts in biotechnology to mitigate issues or climate change and plastic pollution. One project resulted in Pichia pastoris yeast, itself originally found in a horse chestnut tree, capable of capturing carbon and using it to produce animal feed, and another where Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast eats sugar and produces lactic acid.

Anna Dumitriu working with the fermentation of the yeast

The artists have worked with researchers to transform the carbon capturing yeast using CRISPR/Cas9 so that it can also produce lactic acid, and are beginning the directed evolution process to improve its tolerance to the lactic acid it produces. They have extracted the small amount of lactic acid produced by the modified Pichia pastoris yeast, and combined it with a larger quantity from the lactic acid producing Saccharomyces cerevisiae and create their own 3D printing PLA filament from scratch.

The aim of the work is to think about environmental pollution, and explore the use of yeast biotechnology to confront these global problems, as our atmosphere chokes with carbon dioxide and our seas clutter with plastic.

“The Bio-archaeology of Yeast” (detail)

“The Bio-archaeology of Yeast” investigates the field marks created by yeasts on antiquities, artworks and sites of cultural heritage, as habitats for extremophile fungi, known collectively as ‘black yeasts’. It explores these bio-deteriorative microorganisms, not as something to be cleaned away, but as the objects of aesthetic appreciation in themselves, a perspective usually only available to the researchers in the lab in their more reflective moments. The artists produced moulds from 3D photogrammetry scans of ‘black yeast ‘colonies, grown in culture for many months, and cast them into sculptures using Roman cement, which is their preferred substrate. The sculptures were then placed into liquid media containing black yeasts, and colourful mutants, and stained by them as they began their process of beautiful decay.

“The Bio-archaeology of Yeast” (detail)

In “Culture” we explore the co-evolution of yeast and humans and investigate the relationship of fermentation, bread, beer and human settlement, and the idea that this relationship might actually be directed by yeasts rather than humans. Our collaborators discovered the genetics behind fermentation – and used CRISPR to give a non-fermenting Pichia pastoris yeast the ability to make bread rise.

“Culture” installation view

In the installation a jumble of breadcrumb-encrusted architectural models made with this novel yeast emerge from a bed of soil. The buildings are piled one on top of the other, or side by side, representing the development of culture. They are furnished and wallpapered – wired with electric lights – and illuminated by the glare of tiny screens, visible through 3D printed windows and doors.

“Culture” (detail)

Wall-based works using textiles dyed with pigmented yeasts and works on paper made with relics of the research process also accompany the installation.

Work in progress digital visualisation of the artworks

The project ‘in progress’ was featured as part of the STARTS Journeys programme at Ars Electronica 2020 with a video and a short documentary with interviews with project collaborators as well as the artists.

Taster video made for the STARTS Journeys Programme at Ars Electronica
Short documentary about the project for the STARTS Journeys Programme at Ars Electronica

This work is supported by the Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs (bmwd), the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (bmvit), the Styrian Business Promotion Agency SFG, the Standortagentur Tirol, Government of Lower Austria and Vienna Business Agency through the COMET-Funding Program managed by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG. The funding agencies had no influence on the conduct of this work.