The End is Nigh — Will Biology Doom Us or Save Us?

25/11/2017 - 4 minutes

The exhibition In Case of Emergency at the Science Gallery Dublin explores the many possible futures where humans go extinct. From nuclear disaster to global warning, the pieces explore the many threats to our survival. But among all the possible factors leading to an apocalyptic future featured at the exhibition, biology stands out as both threat and hope.

As we learn more about our own biology and that of organisms that may once eradicate humans, we start being able to use this knowledge to turn the tides and “collaborate” with life in the development of solutions for some of the biggest threats. And what better way than explore how biology could simultaneously doom and save us than through art?

The Antibiotic Resistance Quilt

At a first glance, this handmade silk quilt might seem cheerful. But your perspective completely changes when you learn it contains some of the most dangerous bacteria in the world. The different patches have been impregnated with drug-resistant bacteria, including Klebsiella pneumoniae, E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — all of them listed by the World Health Organization as critical priority targets for the development of new antibiotics.

The bacteria were grown on colored agar commonly used for the diagnosis of infections. Some of them have polka dot patterns that were created by placing paper discs impregnated with antibiotics that stopped the bacteria from colonizing the whole patch. But in others, multi-drug resistant bacteria took over the whole patch in spite of the presence of antibiotics. (But don’t worry about actual infections when you go see it, the quilt has been sterilized before being put on exhibition.)

The message of the quilt is clearly a warning of the antimicrobial resistance crisis, which is expected to kill more people than cancer by 2050. But there’s also a message of hope. Some of the patches were impregnated with E.coli bacteria that had been genetically modified using CRISPR to remove the genes responsible for drug resistance, signaling that new technologies, such as CRISPR, could help us tackle this huge challenge.

The antibiotic resistance quilt was designed and handsewn by artist Anna Dumitriu in collaboration with researchers Kevin Cole and Dr. Nicola Fawcett from the Modernising Medical Microbiology project, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and Public Health England.

Epidemic Event Horizon

Although we all hope that science will save us from pandemic infections and antibiotic-resistant pathogens, we need to understand how they work to get ready to fight when they come. Dirk Brockmann, Professor of  Theoretical Biology at the Humboldt University, Berlin, employs an interactive installation to help us understand how diseases really spread.

Visitors can select locations through a screen and watch the most likely path for an outbreak to spread from it. Brockmann intends to make us understand that actual geographic distance does not matter that much anymore, but rather how many people from around the world travel to and from each location.

With over 4,000 airports worldwide, more than 25,000 connections between them, and three billion passengers traveling each year, infections like the 2009 flu pandemic can spread rapidly and through seemingly random patterns. However, when we look closer into it, these patterns are actually dependent on the volume of people traveling across two locations, whatever far away they are geographically.

M-ARK (Microbiome Ark)

M-Ark is built around the theory of panspermia, which states that life on Earth might have originated from microorganisms that arrived via an asteroid that collided with our planet. The golden egg-shaped container at the center of M-Ark carries inside the microbiome of a human — that is, the collection of microorganisms that live within and on our bodies.

Artist Byron Rich imagines a future when our planet becomes inhospitable due to global warming — a future he sees nearer than before after the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement. As the end comes near, the container would be put on orbit inside a satellite, with the aim of keeping this collection of microorganisms alive until climate conditions are favorable again. Then, it would crash back on the planet and start panspermia, returning live to the world we destroyed.




If you are curious to learn more about the many threats — not just biological — that we face as a species and how we can tackle them, the exhibition In Case of Emergency will be on show at the Science Gallery Dublin until February 2018.


Images via Kreml /Shutterstock; Science Gallery Dublin

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