Art Imitates Life: Artist Bioengineers Replica of Van Gogh’s Ear

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(CNN) — Tissue engineering has given us some important medical and scientific advances: Layers of skin grown in the lab can be grafted onto wounds to help burn victims heal. Researchers are developing artificial lungs and livers that may one day be transplanted into patients.

But can tissue engineering also give us a new medium for art? It can for Diemut Strebe, a Boston-based artist who created a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s famously amputated ear that is about as close to the real thing as you can get. The artistic experiment may even lead to new advances in the world of science.

Strebe persuaded Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of Vincent’s brother, to donate a chunk of the inside of his ear for the project. (Although it did not take much convincing because, according to Strebe, “he loved the project right away.”) Then she worked with a “who’s who” of engineers and scientists to grow Lieuwe’s ear cells on a polymer-based scaffold that approximated the shape of Vincent’s ear, based on the only known photograph of the artist showing the body part that was famously removed.

The result is a piece named “Sugababe,” currently on display at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York City, in a show of Strebe’s work. The ear, which an art writer called “creepy” and Stephen Colbert called “the craziest (explicative) thing,” made its debut last year at a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. It gets is name in part because of the sugar-white color of the ear.

“I was looking for a more challenging, inspiring method to create contemporary art,” said Strebe, a mother of five who started her art career only several years ago.

Strebe’s artistic experiment with the ear began in 2010 but it was inspired by a thought experiment dating back to ancient Greece, called Theseus’ paradox. It asks whether an object that has had all of its parts replaced is still the same object. Scientific methods gave Strebe the means to explore this question with “maybe the most famous romantic and stereotypical image of the artist as a genius,” Strebe said.

“(In general), science and art go very well together,” she said. “The Renaissance (period) showed that. Science can produce mediums for art, and perhaps art can give back to science.”

Can Science Imitate Art?

Strebe and her scientist collaborations are trying to create a new version of the ear that would be even more genetically related to the van Gogh original. But in order to do so, they are developing a new technology that would open the door to study a whole group of human diseases.

Although most of the genetic material in the cells that make up “Sugababe” is related to Vincent’s, the exception is the mitochondrial DNA, which is sort of an auxiliary set of genes that help cells generate energy. Lieuwe van Gogh has different mitochondrial DNA because he descended from a woman unrelated to van Gogh (and Vincent’s brother), and mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively through the mother.

To find related mitochondrial DNA, Strebe tracked down a descendent of Vincent’s sister and got another van Gogh family biological sample. Unlike Lieuwe, this descendent did not have to follow in her great-great-great uncle’s footsteps and cut off some ear; mitochondrial DNA can be extracted from cells in the saliva.

Now comes the hard part. Strebe turned to Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and his research lab. The scientists are cloning the mitochondrial DNA of Vincent’s sister’s descendant, and then they will attempt to replace the mitochondrial DNA in Lieuwe’s cells with that of the other donor.

No research group has ever convincingly managed to deliver cloned mitochondrial DNA into cells, Boeke said. Although it is fun to be part of a cool art project, figuring this out has important medical applications, and is “absolutely the reason we are involved with this,” he added.

The ability to introduce cloned mitochondrial DNA into cells would give researchers a new platform to study mitochondrial diseases, which affect about one in 5,000 people, Boeke said. Researchers could mutate the cloned DNA and see how it affects cells growing in the lab. They could tease apart the cellular processes that go awry in diseases such as Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss; and MERRF Syndrome (myoclonic epilepsy with ragged-red fibers), which causes seizures and muscle dysfunction.

More than just a cool “creepy” art piece

The principles that Strebe used to create “Sugababe” are the same ones scientists have been developing for the past several decades to make all matters of organs, including a U.S. Army-funded project to engineer ears for wounded soldiers, said Robert Langer, a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But that’s not to say that the making of “Sugababe” does not make a contribution to the field of tissue engineering. “Anytime anybody does anything in an area like this, I think it advances it. You learn something…every scaffold that you make is kind of different,” said Langer, who consulted with Strebe on her project.

Strebe also worked with an auditory scientist to give “Sugababe” a hearing component. Although the ear itself does not hear — as Strebe put it, “the ear is missing Vincent to make that work” — the piece does have a microphone that visitors can speak into. Then a computer program processes the sound into a series of static bursts, which mimic how the brain perceives sounds. The bursts play back through a speaker for visitors to hear.

Although the ear itself probably does not help advance auditory science, it would be nice if it helped visitors get a better sense of how the brain interprets sound, said Peter Cariani, a senior research scientist at the Hearing Research Center at Boston University. Cariani built the sound system for “Sugababe.”

For Strebe’s part, she hopes visitors to the ear will not simply write it off as “creepy.”

“These images are very important documents of our time and that try to capture our time,” Strebe said.