Conceptual art meets molecular science

SKIDMARK ART: Billy Apple’s 1970 conceptual artwork Excretory Wipings, in which he collected and dated his used toilet paper, has helped Auckland University scientists better understand the microbiome, the full collection of microbe genes in a community. Pictures by University of Auckland Liggins Institute

WHEN Auckland-born pop artist Billy Apple decided in the late 1960s he would make himself the subject of his work, he produced the conceptual artwork Excretory Wipings.

To create the series, Apple collected his daily toilet tissues, soiled with excrement and diligently recorded the time and date on each sample. The tissues were excluded from display in his 1974 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, but luckily for science, he stored his wipings.

With advances in genetic science, biologists can now investigate the microbiome, the full collection of genes of all microbes in a community. Scientists at Auckland University’s Liggins Institute found that 45 percent of the bacteria species present in Apple’s 1970 art work Excretory Wipings were present in his body 46 years later.

Apple’s gift to science proves for the first time the microbes in our bodies give us unique identities throughout our lives.

Liggins doctoral student Thilini Jayasinghe and his team used a method called 16S amplicon sequencing to copy and sequence regions of the bacterial DNA from the samples. These were then compared against a database called the Human Microbiome Project.

Billy Apple’s gut

“Billy Apple’s gut microbiome was less diverse at age 80 compared to 35,” says Jayasinghe.

“But 45 percent of the bacteria species were retained over the 46 years, despite significant differences in his age and environment — New York and Auckland — and in his diet.”

The findings substantiate growing evidence a core part of our bacteria population remains stable as we age, and that at least some of the bacteria are actively selected by our genes.

“We used to think of our resident bacteria as hitch-hikers, foreign bodies along for the ride,” says Liggins molecular biologist Dr Justin O’Sullivan.

“Scientists now realise that these microscopic creatures interact in many intricate, mysterious ways with our body systems, and play a crucial role in our health, wellbeing and development.

“The structure of the microbiome is affected by the interaction between your genes and your environment, which includes what you eat. We are walking, talking ecosystems.

“The key thing we showed is that there are some microbes that stay with you over your lifetime, or at least a major part of your adult life.

In agreement with what other people have shown, some of these microbes seem to be selected by your genes,” said Dr O’Sullivan.

N=1

Apple has produced a new work on canvas about his microbiome and given it to the Liggins Institute. Called N=1, it incorporates images of the original toilet tissues and bar graphs that represent results of the new study.

This was not Apple’s first collaboration with scientists. One with biochemist Dr Craig Hilton led to New Zealand Genomics Ltd sequencing Apple’s entire genome; another work depicts the artist’s coronary arteries before and after having stents put in.

“We hope that this linkage of art and science will help to reinforce the importance of the gut microbiome,” says Dr O’Sullivan.

“It was a wonderful, genuine collaboration,” says Apple. “I had a component that Justin didn’t have — I brought the 46 years to it.”

WHEN Auckland-born pop artist Billy Apple decided in the late 1960s he would make himself the subject of his work, he produced the conceptual artwork Excretory Wipings.

To create the series, Apple collected his daily toilet tissues, soiled with excrement and diligently recorded the time and date on each sample. The tissues were excluded from display in his 1974 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, but luckily for science, he stored his wipings.

With advances in genetic science, biologists can now investigate the microbiome, the full collection of genes of all microbes in a community. Scientists at Auckland University’s Liggins Institute found that 45 percent of the bacteria species present in Apple’s 1970 art work Excretory Wipings were present in his body 46 years later.

Apple’s gift to science proves for the first time the microbes in our bodies give us unique identities throughout our lives.

Liggins doctoral student Thilini Jayasinghe and his team used a method called 16S amplicon sequencing to copy and sequence regions of the bacterial DNA from the samples. These were then compared against a database called the Human Microbiome Project.

Billy Apple’s gut

“Billy Apple’s gut microbiome was less diverse at age 80 compared to 35,” says Jayasinghe.

“But 45 percent of the bacteria species were retained over the 46 years, despite significant differences in his age and environment — New York and Auckland — and in his diet.”

The findings substantiate growing evidence a core part of our bacteria population remains stable as we age, and that at least some of the bacteria are actively selected by our genes.

“We used to think of our resident bacteria as hitch-hikers, foreign bodies along for the ride,” says Liggins molecular biologist Dr Justin O’Sullivan.

“Scientists now realise that these microscopic creatures interact in many intricate, mysterious ways with our body systems, and play a crucial role in our health, wellbeing and development.

“The structure of the microbiome is affected by the interaction between your genes and your environment, which includes what you eat. We are walking, talking ecosystems.

“The key thing we showed is that there are some microbes that stay with you over your lifetime, or at least a major part of your adult life.

In agreement with what other people have shown, some of these microbes seem to be selected by your genes,” said Dr O’Sullivan.

N=1

Apple has produced a new work on canvas about his microbiome and given it to the Liggins Institute. Called N=1, it incorporates images of the original toilet tissues and bar graphs that represent results of the new study.

This was not Apple’s first collaboration with scientists. One with biochemist Dr Craig Hilton led to New Zealand Genomics Ltd sequencing Apple’s entire genome; another work depicts the artist’s coronary arteries before and after having stents put in.

“We hope that this linkage of art and science will help to reinforce the importance of the gut microbiome,” says Dr O’Sullivan.

“It was a wonderful, genuine collaboration,” says Apple. “I had a component that Justin didn’t have — I brought the 46 years to it.”

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