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by artist Rachel Pimm

This blog post is by artist Rachel Pimm who is one of the three UK based artists involved in the project ‘Experiments in Art & Science’, a new collaboration between Kettle’s Yard and The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. Below Rachel explains some of the science she has been researching as part of her research for a new film which will be presented, alongside the work of the artists David Blandy and Laura Wilson, at an event on Saturday 20 October to coincide with the Festival of Ideas.

THERE ARE BILLIONS OF WORMS IN THE GURDON INSTITUTE’S ERIC MISCA LAB AND EACH OF THEM LIVES AROUND 3 DAYS BEFORE CREATING A NEW GENERATION. THE WORMS ARE CALLED C. ELEGANS AND THEY ARE TRANSPARENT (UNDER A MICROSCOPE YOU CAN ALREADY SEE THROUGH THEIR BODIES TO LOOK INSIDE).  THEY HAVE A SIMPLE AND FULLY SEQUENCED GENOME WHICH MEANS THAT WE KNOW AND CAN LOCATE PARTS OF THE FULL GENETIC CODE, BECAUSE IT’S MUCH SIMPLER THAN OTHER MODELS.

HERES A SINGLE C. ELEGANS WORM IN A PETRI DISH

THE FUNCTION OF THE MISKA LAB IS TO LOOK AT RNA (RIBO-NUCLEIC ACID).

DNA IS A PERMANENT CODE OF WHAT MAKES OUR BODY AND RNA IS A LESS PERMANENT CODE FOR WHAT THE BODY NEEDS TO FUNCTION. RNA CAN ‘CODE’ INTO PROTEINS, TO THEN DO USEFUL THINGS AROUND THE BODY.

AS I SEE IT, IF DNA IS THE PERMANENT GENETIC CODE THEN RNA CAN BE THE DYNAMIC CHANGEABLE TRANS-GENERATIONAL INHERITANCE.  SOMETIMES RNA CAN BE DECORATED WITH CHEMICAL MARKERS, LIKE A ROLEX OR PATEK PHILLIPE WATCH OR SOMETHING, NOT PART OF YOUR GENES, BUT CARRIED DOWN FROM ONE GENERATION TO THE NEXT.

WORM-LIKE RNA MOLECULE WITH DYNAMIC CHEMICAL DECORATIONS

THEN THERE’S THIS RNA THAT DOESN’T CODE OR TRANSFORM. SOMETIMES IT HANGS AROUND FOR A LONG TIME – LIKE FOR MANY GENERATIONS –  WITHOUT HAVING AN OBVIOUS FUNCTION, BUT WE KNOW THAT MUST BE USEFUL FOR SURVIVAL OR FOR THE ORGANISM BEING ABLE TO FLOURISH OR IT WOULDN’T BE KEPT – WHAT DOES IT DO AND WHAT IS IT THERE FOR?

THE SCIENTISTS ARE ASKING QUESTIONS LIKE- WHAT IS RNA FOR? WHY DO ORGANISMS HAVE IT? WHAT DOES IT DO FOR US IN EVOLUTION? IN SURVIVAL? WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ITS FUNCTIONS? TO ANSWER THOSE QUESTIONS THE LAB SEES IF WE CAN PUT STRESS INTO WORMS, LOOK AT THE SITE THE STRESS-DATA IS STORED CHEMICALLY IN THE CELLS, THEN SEE HOW PRODUCTIVE THE WORMS ARE AT BREEDING AND HOW MANY GENERATIONS THE RNA STAYS. I ASKED ISABELA NAVARRO AND KIN MAN SUEN A THOUSAND QUESTIONS ABOUT RNA TO GET THIS SEMI FACTUAL SEMI ANALOGOUS UNDERSTANDING, WHICH I AM 100% SURE IS NOT SPOT ON BUT I HOPE THEY ALLOW MY SOCIAL READING.

HERE’S A WHOLE GROUP OF C. ELEGANS WORMS IN A PETRI DISH

THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS OF STRESSING THE WORMS OUT OR CREATING A TRAUMATIC ENVIRONMENT THAT THEY’LL PASS MEMORIES OF TO THE NEXT GENERATIONS:

*COOL THEM DOWN

*WARM THEM UP

*MAKE THEM SALTY

*DRY THEM OUT

*BLEACH THEIR MOTHERS’ BODIES OFF (NICHE)

HERES A C. ELEGANS WORM SUSPENDED IN A TEST TUBE OF BLEACH

I LIKE THAT THE NAME OF THE UN-AFFECTED OR NATURAL-HABITAT-DWELLING WORMS ARE THE ‘WILD TYPE’ WORMS

WILD TYPES WOULD TYPICALLY LIVE IN A ROTTEN APPLE IN A PARK BIN

WILD TYPES IN THE LAB LIKE 21 DEGREES.

THEY ALL START AS HERMAPHRODITES AND THEN EITHER BREED WITH THEMSELVES OR WITH MALES.  IN WORMS MALES ARE RARE, BUT WHEN THEY GET STRESSED OUT A LOT MORE OF THEM ARE PRODUCED.

WHEN CROSSING OR REPRODUCING THE WORMS TO MAKE A NEW GENERATION, IT TAKES A LOT OF HELP TO GET MALES TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO CROSS/ REPRODUCE BUT HERMAPHRODITES HAVE IT COVERED, NO TROUBLE.

ONE THING THAT HAPPENS IS THAT THE NEXT GENERATION ARE ABLE TO COPE WITH THE STRESSFUL ENVIRONMENT IN QUESTION, EVEN IF THEY’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED IT AND THEY ARE SORT OF MORE RESILIENT IN GENERAL TO OTHER STRESSFUL ENVIRONMENTS.

ONE OF THE THEORIES IS MEMORY. SPECIFICALLY MEMORIES OF TRAUMA AND TRAUMATIC ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS

YEP

RNA MEANS AN ORGANISM CAN REMEMBER, THROUGH THE SIGNALS THAT THE RNA MAKES, A TRAUMA OF ANOTHER GENERATION.

TRAUMA IS PHYSICALLY STORED AND PASSED DOWN

TRAUMA IS TRANSGENERATIONAL

TRAUMA IS EPIGENETIC

TRAUMA IS CHEMICAL

TRAUMA IS THE CHEMICAL MESSAGE, THE SIGNAL, CHEMICALLY INTERACTING WITH THE CODE OF YOUR DNA FROM YOUR MOTHER, GRANDMOTHER, GREATGRANDMOTHER…

TRAUMA IS USEFUL TO KEEP AND PASS ON FOR RESILIENCE

I’VE BEEN TALKING TO OTHER FRIENDS ABOUT ENVIRONMENTS. THOSE THAT ACKNOWLEDGE VERY INTENSELY FAMILIAR OR STRESSFUL FEELINGS VISITING SOMEWHERE THEY’VE NEVER BEEN, BUT THAT THEIR FAMILY HAVE ONCE. A FOREST WHERE A GENOCIDE TOOK PLACE, A COUNTRY COLONIALLY LINKED TO THEIR ORIGIN, FONDNESS FOR OR EASY ASSIMILATION INTO A NEW PLACE…

SALINATED PETRI DISH – TOO SALTY ENVIRONMENT

SO THE POTENTIAL HERE IS THAT THESE WORMS CAN TEACH US ABOUT THE GENETIC INHERITANCE OF TRAUMA EXPERIENCED BY PREVIOUS GENERATIONS BY COUNTING. COUNTING HOW GOOD EACH GENERATION IS AT REPRODUCING POST-STRESS.

THE FEELING OF REMEMBERING A TRAUMA YOU NEVER EXPERIENCED BUT WAS PASSED DOWN TO YOU IS A CHEMICAL REALITY. AND WHATS MORE, ITS A REALITY THAT IS USEFUL FOR FUTURE SURVIVAL.

THERE’S ANOTHER THING ABOUT THIS LOOKING AT WORMS I’VE REALLY ENJOYED.

THE ‘MARKERS’

THE RNA IS SEEN AND STUDIED BY USING ‘MARKERS’. GFP MEANS GREEN FLUORESCENT PROTEIN. THESE GLOWING PROTEINS WHICH COME FROM MARINE ANIMALS LIKE JELLYFISH ARE PUT INTO THE WORM AS A DYE AND THEY FOLLOW, TRACK AND ATTACH THEMSELVES ONTO OTHER PROTEINS THAT WORK WITH RNA SO WE CAN SEE WHAT IT ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE.

WHEN A WORM IS STUDIED IT IS NO LONGER ‘WILD’ IT IS ‘FIXED’.

FIXED MEANS IT NO LONGER MOVES

FIXED MEANS IT IS LIFELESS

FIXED DOWN, STATIC, UNCHANGING.

RNA IS DYNAMIC, IT WANTS TO JUMP AROUND. ONE TYPE IS A BIT LIKE POLICE TO KEEP THE RNA KETTLED AND STAYING PUT WHILST ENVIRONMENTS ARE CHANGEABLE ROUND THEM. SO ONE IS A SORT OF STATE-RUN PROGRAMME TO KEEP TRAUMA MOLECULES UNDER WRAPS BECAUSE THEY ARE OTHERWISE UNPREDICTABLE IN THE SOCIAL BODY.

THROUGH A CONFOCAL MICROSCOPE GFP SHOWS WHERE THE CLUSTERS OF PIRNA ON THE GERMLINE OF A C. ELEGANS WORM ARE.

GFP VISUALISES HERE WHAT PIRNA LOOKS LIKE, BY MARKING ON THE GERMLINE OF A WORM THE AREA AROUND IT.  THIS IS THE REPRODUCTIVE PART THAT LOOKS LIKE A SMALL WORM INSIDE THE PERFECTLY SEE THROUGH BODY OF THE ACTUAL WORM. THIS IS KIND OF LIKE STICKING CHEMICAL FLUORO- HAZARD TAPE STICKERS ONTO SOME PLACES IN A KIND OF OPEN ANATOMICAL DIAGRAM INTO WHICH WE CAN PEER TO SEE THE TRAUMA HAPPENING.

LITTLE ENVIRONMENTAL STRESS TRAUMA JEWELLERY DOWRY CLINGING ROUND THE REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS OF A FIXED DEAD WORM READY TO HAND ON TO ITS OFFSPRING TO TRY TO MAKE SOMETHING OF IT AND DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

FURTHER RESOURCES:

WORMBOOK

SPECIAL THANKS TO ISABELA CUNHA NAVARRO AND KIN MAN SUEN