Christina Agapakis

Christina Agapakis is a synthetic biologist whose research explores the role of design, ecology, and evolution in biological engineering. Her scientific work spans many scales, from proteins to plants to microbial communities. Through collaboration with biologists, engineers, artists, and designers, she pushes the boundaries of synthetic biology from the strict view of cells as computational devices to a more fluid understanding of the function and evolution of living things. In addition to her research and teaching in biological engineering and design, she explores the social and ethical dimensions of biological engineering through writing and film. Having recently completed her Ph.D. at Harvard University, she is cur- rently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a 2012 L'Oreal USA For Women in Science fellow.

Sissel Tolaas

With a background in mathematics, chemical science, linguistics and languages, and visual art, Sissel Tolaas has dedicated herself to Nose /Smell in all levels of life for more than twenty years. She has an archive of 6730 smells from reality, plus a lab archive of 2500 molecules. Sissel's knowledge and expertise is in simulation – simulation through synthetic molecules – the air and smells that surround us all the time, from body sweat or smells from hardcore neighbourhoods. Her aim is and ask questions, train tolerance and train awareness. To do this Sissel works internationally, interdisciplinarily and collaboratively. Her work is about making systems of smells as a basis for communication, used for the purposes of navigation, education, design, architecture, health care, and environment. Sissel has exhibited at SFMOMA, San Francisco; MOMA, New York; the Guggenheim, Venice and Berlin; Museum of Modern Art, Berlin; National Art Museum of China, Beijing; biennales in Berlin, Venice, Tirana, Gwangju, Liverpool. Recent awards include the Rouse Foundation Award 2009, Harvard Graduate School of Design and an ArsElectronica Award 2010.
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Nothing Stinks Only Thinking Makes It So

Project Synopsis

We live in biological world completely surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but often in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis. But "sanitized and pasteurised for your protection" is the antiseptic symbol of sensory death. Because not all smells and bacteria can be pleasant, the consequences of hyper-sanitation could be that we decide to have none at all. Smells, bacteria, and bacteria that produce smells surround us all the time; chemical detection is an ancient biological communication tool used by bacteria and animals alike. Smells and bacteria are a crucial component in defining, understanding of and
orienting in any environment.

The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a “model organism.” Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet. Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies or in other parts of our life? How do human cultures cultivate and value bacterial cultures on cheeses and fermented foods? How will
synthetic biology change with a better understanding of how species of bacteria work together in nature as opposed to the pure cultures of the lab?

Will we be able to re-engineer bacterial communities as readily as we can add or delete genes to and from E. coli? How will synthetic biology change our relationship to the microbial communities that surround us?

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"Selfmade" human cheese at Grow Your Own… Life After Nature

Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas' "Selfmade" project, featuring a selection of human cheeses, was exhibited at the Grow Your Own... Life After Nature at the Science Gallery, Dublin, Ireland (October 25 2013 to January 19 2014). The public were invited to open fridges containing the cheeses, and smell the individual microbial portraits for themselves. The cheeses came from the body bacteria of a diverse group, including food writer Michael Pollan, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, cheese scientist Ben Dutton and artist Olafur Eliasson. The project was widely discussed in the international media. 

Christina and Sissel say: "We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasises total antisepsis. The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a ‘model organism’. Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet. Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies? How do humans cultivate and value bacterial cultures on cheeses and fermented foods? How will synthetic biology change with a better understanding of how species of bacteria work together in nature as opposed to the pure cultures of the lab?"

 

 

Photo: Science Gallery.

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Women In Science

Christina Agapakis has won a prestigious 2012 L’Oréal USA Fellowship for Women in Science. Christina plans to continue her work investigating symbioisis in synthetic lifeforms with this post-doctoral award. 

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UdK Award for Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis

Synthetic Aesthetics Residents Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas won an award from UdK, the Universität der Künste, Berlin for their art and science collaboration on human body cheese. Congratulations to our residents for their continuing collaboration!

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A culture of cheese - Sissel Tolaas at the World Science Festival

Sissel Tolaas was a speaker at the World Science Festival in New York in June, discussing her Synthetic Aesthetics collaboration with Christina Agapakis. Sissel says, "Smell is one of those senses where context can play a huge role. A fine cheese and a dirty foot share the same molecular smells, yet one is a delicacy and other is repulsive."

For their BO_BAD_CHE project, Christina and Sissel collected bacteria from people and used it to make 'human' cheese. "We decided to focus on cheese as a metaphor for the human organism", explains Sissel. These personalised dairy products challenge the old adage of "we are what we eat", and the boundary between what we make and who we are. Their collaboration continues: most recently, at the SB5.0 conference at Stanford in June they ran a live cheese-making session, building a library of cheeses made from bacterial cultures swabbed from the global synthetic biology community. 

 

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Christina Agapakis and BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker

Synthetic Aesthetics' resident and Harvard synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis in conversation with Maggie Koerth-Baker, discussing synthetic biology, design, cheese and women in science and blogging. Watch the discussion here!

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Smell-Omics

Comparing pleasantly fragrant with very stinky home-made cheeses.
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Fungi

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Cheese Smell Adventure

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"...the social characteristic of microbes: natural flora and fauna, they materialize as specific communities within ecologies of human practice. To speak doubly of cheese cultures--bacterial and human--is no idle pun." -Heather Paxson, The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese
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Olfactory-like signaling in mammalian sperm

Researchers are finding that sperm use smell to find their way to eggs, preferring the smell of lily-of-the-valley in vitro! 

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The communication of stress/anxiety between conspecifics through chemosensory signals has been documented in many vertebrates and invertebrates. Here, we investigate how chemosensory anxiety signals conveyed by the sweat of humans (N = 49) awaiting an academic examination are processed by the human brain, as compared to chemosensory control signals obtained from the same sweat donors in a sport condition. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0005987
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Sniffing enables communication and environmental control for the severely disabled

Paradoxically, improvements in emergency medicine have increased survival
albeit with severe disability ranging from quadriplegia to “locked-in
syndrome.” Locked-in syndrome is characterized by intact cognition yet
complete paralysis, and hence these individuals are “locked-in” their own
body, at best able to communicate using eye blinks alone. Sniffing is a
precise sensory-motor acquisition entailing changes in nasal pressure. The
fine control of sniffing depends on positioning the soft palate, which is
innervated by multiple cranial nerves. This innervation pattern led us to
hypothesize that sniffing may remain conserved following severe injury. To
test this, we developed a device that measures nasal pressure and converts it
into electrical signals. The device enabled sniffs to control an actuator with
speed similar to that of a hand using a mouse or joystick. Functional magnetic
resonance imaging of device usage revealed a widely distributed neural
network, allowing for increased conservation following injury. Also, device
usage shared neural substrates with language production, rendering sniffs a
promising bypass mode of communication. Indeed, sniffing allowed completely
paralyzed locked-in participants to write text and quadriplegic participants
to write text and drive an electric wheelchair. We conclude that redirection
of sniff motor programs toward alternative functions allows sniffing to
provide a control interface that is fast, accurate, robust, and highly
conserved following severe injury.

By Anton Plotkina,1, Lee Selaa,1, Aharon Weissbroda, Roni Kahanaa, Lior Haviva,
Yaara Yeshuruna, Nachum Sorokerb,c, and Noam Sobela,2

Department of Neurobiology, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100,
Israel; Loewenstein Rehabilitation Hospital, Raanana 43100, Israel; and
cThe Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv 69978,
Israel; Edited* by Brian A. Wandell, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved
June 24, 2010 (received for review May 13, 2010)

A.P. and L.S. contributed equally to this work.
Link

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Cyborg Noses

This post originally appeared at Oscillator 

 A lot of synthetic biology is about getting biology to be more like electrical engineering, designing genetic "logic gates" to create a living circuit board. Beyond analogies, however, cells have many fascinating electrical properties--proteins that transfer electrons like wires, membranes that separate ions and create an electrical charge that drives the metabolism of the cell, channels through these membranes that open and close to activate an electro-biological response. Electrons are electrons whether they are in proteins or copper wires, and many scientists have designed ways to connect the soft and squishy electrical flows of living systems to the hard electricity of computers, creating hybrid cyborgs that play to the different but compatible strengths of cells and computers. One emergent application of such technology is in the design of chemical sensors, connecting the amazing ability of cells to sense and respond to very small changes in the environment to a human-readable output on a computer screen or even to a robot that can move and seek out the source of a chemical.

An amazing recent paper from a Japanese research group shows how such a cyborg nose could work. The team worked with frog eggs, large and hardy cells that are relatively easy to manipulate one at a time, placing them into a specially designed chamber where the electrical state of the cell could be measured by a computer while different solutions flowed across the surface of the cell. However, egg cells can't "smell" on their own, they need to be engineered with receptors that can sense and respond to chemicals in the solution. To accomplish this, the researchers engineered the egg cells to express the smell receptors from various insects on their surface. Mammalian smell receptors activate a cascade of signals inside the cell that are difficult to measure without biochemistry, but insect smell receptors are much simpler, opening a channel through the membrane that rapidly changes the electrical state of the cell. Since the electrical potential is constantly being measured by the special chamber, when the right chemical binds to the receptor and opens the channel, the computer "sees" the smell. 

Once the computer sees the chemicals, that signal can be translated into any other mechanical system. In a simple but awesome demonstration of the ability to connect the chemical biosensor to robots, the egg cell chamber was mounted into the nose of a robotic mannequin head. When the chemical was sensed, the robot shook its head from side to side. The cells are highly sensitive, able to sense very small chemical concentrations, and highly specific, able to distinguish between similar molecules with a high tolerance for noise.

Cells don't have to be computers to be able to do amazing things with computers. Biology has unique and powerful skills, and biologically inspired and biologically integrated engineering has great potential for all kinds of new cyborgs.

 

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"This is basic science that's really, really interesting because if bacteria can really smell, that's something unexpected."
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23/03/2012 – 20:37 – Lestheprof said:
Is it? Bacteria need to be able to move towards nutrients, etc, to swim in the direction of increasing concentrations of chemicals. Consider surface molecules over the extent of the bacterium, responding differentially to varying concentrations...mind you, considering the size of bacteria, the delta but be *really* small ...
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