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Banana Bacteria
updated by Laura Cinti - 21 Oct 2013


The experience of banana smell was at first a bit confusing. The isoamyl alcohol seems to have a faint banana scent in its otherwise pugnant alcohol smell. As time progressed the banana smell became sweeter and less alcohol-like. Normal strains of E.coli (such as XL-1 BLUE) have their natural smell that blend in with the banana smell producing a mixture between sweet and rotten, or a bit like rotten banana.

Howard Boland, Art from Synthetic Biology, University of Westminster, 2013




Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria(2011), Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India, January 2012

BANANA BACTERIA is an olfactory work that explores the paradox of having the foul smell of bacteria (E.coli) exchanged with the sweet smell of banana. These bacteria have been genetically altered by removing a gene responsible for the foul smell commonly found in bacteria and adding a genetic design that enable bacteria to synthetically produce banana oil.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011), Art from Synthetic Biology, The Royal Institute of Great Britain, London, UK, April 2013

The work combines several techniques and constructs, in particular it uses a genetic design developed by a team at MIT (iGEM 2006) for the synthetically production of banana oil. 

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011),  Plate of indole inefficent E.coli strain transformed with plasmid.

In exploring the library to identify well-working expressions that could generate telling experiences through genetics, one construct (BBa_ J45250) developed by the 2006 MIT iGEM team (Green et al., 2006; Shetty, 2008: 20-35) was of particular interest since it used metabolic engineering to alter the foul smell of E. coli by producing banana and wintergreen scents. While too often the foul smell of bacteria is one way of recognising their presence, the cause of this smell is chemical or metabolic in nature.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria(2011),  Art from Synthetic Biology, The Royal Institute of Great Britain, London, UK, April 2013

Using synthetic biology, an alternative metabolic product is produced by converting an alcohol (isoamyl) to acetate, an ester with a banana-like smell or more commonly known as banana oil.

Fascinated by how these scents confuse and prompts a rethinking of our microbial relationship, the construct was developed towards artistic outcomes that could publicly be suggestive of bacterial smells alluding to something drinkable, edible or favourable. BANANA BACTERIA investigates how synthetic biology can bring new experiences of organisms and in this case new scents.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria(2011), Art from Synthetic Biology, The Royal Institute of Great Britain, London, UK, April 2013

The work began after receiving the library of standardised parts from the MIT partsregistry. The process of putting plasmids containing the genetic parts into cells (transformation) is relatively straightforward. Using antibiotic selection, colonies were picked and grown in liquid culture. Cultures were up-scaled to grow in 200ml bottles, and once turbid or dense, these were placed on ice and a small amount of isoamyl alcohol was added allowing the conversion process to commence.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011), Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India, January 2012

As vessels for the liquid culture, the setup used round shaped flasks (i.e. Florence flasks) mounted on a laboratory stand with a glass cap (Illustration 46). In order to harness the experience, a special indole inefficient or odourless knockout strain (YYC-912) was obtained from the University of Lusanne (Switzerland). Since the LB-broth produces a sweet caramel-like scent, a scentless growth media (M9 minimal media) was prepared.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011), Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India, January 2012

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011), Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India, January 2012While scientifically the construct illustrates how synthetic biology can impact the flavouring industry, its artistic use offers an olfactory awareness that both confuses and challenges our senses; the foul warning smell of bacteria is exchanged with the sweet smell of banana. In spite of speculative scenarios posed by the work towards future applications, such as how bacteria inhabiting humans could be made to produce synthetic odours that replace bad breath (e.g. with a minty fresh breath), the focus here is on the intimate experience this setup has in terms of interacting with GMOs and enabling such access by publicly staging the work. As a paradox, the smell as an interaction provides an actual and immediate experience beyond speculation that renegotiate ways we think of bacteria (e.g. smell of decay) as an aesthetic by extending their metabolic capability.

Banana Bacteria(2011), Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India, January 2012

Acknowledgements:

The molecular work was conducted in 2010 at the University of Westminster. The work was featured as part of the event Synthetic Biology: Machine or Life? at the Science Museum's DANA Centre in October 2011. BANANA BACTERIA was exhibited live at Techfest 2012, IIT Bombay, Mumbai, India in January 2012 and atArt from Synthetic Biology, the UK’s first public exhibition featuring living genetically modified microorganisms at The Royal Institute of Great Britain in April 2013.

Howard Boland, Banana Bacteria, 2011
Banana Bacteria (2011), Art from Synthetic Biology, The Royal Institute of Great Britain, London, UK, April 2013

Sincerest gratitude to Dr Mark Clements. Constructs for converting isoamyl alcohol to isoamyl acetate was developed by the MIT iGEM team in 2006 and particularly by Dr Reshma Shetty. The MIT partsregistery provided an invaluable library. Special thanks to Sara Tocchetti at London School of Economics who helped obtain a special indole inefficient strain (YYC912) through the University of Lusanne (Switzerland).

The research is supported by a Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and University of Westminster.

Other References: C-LAB:blog: Gene machine takes the prize
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 1: Arrival
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 2: Lab Trouble
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 3: Bacteria wake up to Indian summer
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 4-5: LAB-24
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 5: Opening
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 6: Living works come to life
C-LAB:blog: Techfest Day 7: Final push :)
C-LAB:event: C-LAB PREMIERS LIVING SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY WORKS AT TECHFEST 2012
C-LAB:event: GROW YOUR OWN
C-LAB:event: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: MACHINE OR LIFE?
C-LAB:experiment: Magnetically actuated Cress plants
C-LAB:project: Banana Bacteria
C-LAB:project: Nanomagnetic Plants
C-LAB:project: Stress-o-stat
Grow Your Own: where scientists and artists are shaking up creation
IIT Bombay
Techfest 2012
Overview
Year
2011
Status
completed
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