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A whiff of sweet-smelling rain in a science lab

Sunday, 31 January 2010 - 9:14am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: dna

A team of 10 art students from Bangalore, mentored by an artist, tried to replicate the smell of rain with help from synthetic biology.

W hat happens when artists start talking to scientists? Well, they’ve been doing that for a few decades now and lots of fascinating experiments have been wrought. The most recent one done in Bangalore was an attempt to create the smell of rain!

Artist-in-residence at Centre for Experimental Media and Arts at the Srishti School of Art and Design, Yashas Shetty got 10 art students, who knew nothing about working in a science lab, excited in a project to learn synthetic biology, the art of cobbling up different parts of DNA to create new creatures. “It’s hacking into life. It’s like science fiction and it’s happening now,” says Shetty, a music composer who collaborated with scientists studying weather and then moved on to work with biologists at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS).

“We had hundreds of ideas for the project. We thought of making biosensors that would turn a particular colour on detecting a certain emotion, bacteria that would help in weight loss, spiritual bacteria and so on. Finally we decided on the scent of rain. I had always thought of it as beautiful,” Shetty says.

For three months, the students learnt how to isolate the DNA that made streptococci bacteria in soil give out the smell that we identify as the smell of rain. It’s an enzyme called geosmin that gives out the smell. The task was to articificially synthesise geosmin and run it in E Coli bacteria which is the commonly used vehicle. “It’s like an operating system,” Shetty explains.

The team hadn’t really done empirical tests to see if they had succeeded in replicating the smell of rain. “The process was more important than the end result. The idea was to help students learn the how of synthetic biology,” Shetty says. The group entered its experiment into the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

It was the first time that a bunch of artists were taking part in a science competition, says Shetty. There were 110 entries from all over the world. The first-timers from our city bagged the Best Presentation prize at the event. But that’s just an additional incentive to think up more such experiments that would make science more accessible to anyone interested.

The challenge is to demystify science, especially in today’s
environment where students drop out of the science stream because they are intimidated by it. “A lot of science is cloaked in BS (bull s*&t). But it’s just a way of looking at the world, so is art,” says Shetty, explaining his fascination for the subject. “The way science is done interests me. There is a lot of politics behind it,” he says.

While doing the project, the team wrote a book on protocols for synthetic biology and gave it out for free. It was available on the Internet for anyone to download. “It was a sort of do-it-yourself manual for synthetic biology,” he says. All efforts are aimed at freeing science from the confines of scientific institutions. Now, the mentor of the ArtsScience Team is busy helping science enthusiasts make their own microscopes. Clearly, these are just ‘science’ of more astounding things to come.

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