Guy Ben-Ary grew his own neurons on a Petri dish and made them perform in a concert last weekend at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
Last weekend I took my bike across Berlin to attend a truly unique event. It was, in fact, my first time going to a concert where one of the players was a culture of human neurons rather than the usual full human organism. After letting the curious audience wander around, take pictures, and inspect the strange equipment in the concert hall, bioartist Guy Ben-Ary explained how he had made it possible for human cells to create music.
The musician cells that were to perform that day were, in fact, cells from Ben-Ary himself. He had taken a biopsy from his skin and used a protocol to reprogram them into stem cells and then differentiate them into neurons. “I always wanted to be a rockstar,” joked Ben-Ary. “I cannot play music but I know how to grow neurons, so this was easier for me than learning how to play.”
To allow his own cells to play music, Guy Ben-Ary cultures them on a special petri dish with 16 electrodes that can record the electric signals that the neurons produce as part of their natural activity. The tiny petri dish is then placed in a huge machine with a myriad of cables that transform the electric signals into sound. The cells are located within a small compartment that keeps them alive at 37 degrees and 5% CO2.
The cyborg instrument, named CellF, performed in a duet with vocalist Stine Janvin Motland. Her singing was transformed into electric signals and fed to the neurons to allow the cells to “hear” and react to the sounds. Sometimes, the cells seemed to go along with Stine. Others, they just seemed eager to play a solo and show off their unique ability to make music.
The huge complexity of neurons makes it impossible to know exactly what was going on or whether they were actually responding to their surroundings. Still, walking around the room during the concert was somewhat magical. Each of the 16 electrodes was connected to a different speaker, and all the speakers were placed making a circle around the audience. As I walked around, I could clearly hear how while the cells in one electrode were hectic with electrical activity, others would be quiet. Within the same petri dish, each group of cells had their own rhythm and pattern.
We’re used to experiencing science with our sights. I myself have spent some years culturing cells, so I am familiar with how they look like and what changes in their morphology can mean. But I had never heard them before. Guy Ben-Ary has found a new way of experiencing what’s going on in a petri dish, reminding us that there’s always much more than meets the eye.
Images via Guy Ben-Ary