Kenyon College

The Biological Significance of These Sequences is Not Known 5 (Vanessa Cardui), 2017


Kate Nichols ’04 (American)

The Biological Significance of These Sequences is Not Known 5 (Vanessa Cardui), 2017.

Oil on panel. 23 x 23 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Biologists in the Martin Lab at George Washington University taught me how to harvest fresh butterfly eggs, how to deposit them onto double-stick tape in petri dishes, and how to roll them carefully using a paintbrush. From there, the scientists taught me how to inject these eggs with CRISPR-Cas9 and guide RNA to introduce edits into their genomes. These edits alter the patterns of the butterflies’ wings. My paintings depict butterflies whose genomes were edited in this way.

We think of CRISPR as new and futuristic, but the bacterial-defense system it derives from is ancient. The title of this series, “The Biological Significance of These Sequences is Unknown,” is excerpted from a 1987 paper in which Japanese scientists first mentioned the repeated bacterial DNA sequences now known as CRISPR. Three decades later, we do know something of their significance: we can use this ancient bacterial technology to edit the genomes of all known organisms. And yet, we cannot pretend to apprehend the full magnitude of the changes CRISPR will give rise to. 

What we do know is that, within our lifetimes, synthetic biology will bring about great changes in the ways we live and die—indeed, in what it means to be human. (And, by extension, what it means to be an artist.) Beyond this, it’s anyone’s guess.

The human drive to peer into the future is strong. Throughout history, we’ve attempted to divine the future with tea leaves, sticks, crystal balls, pools of water, the flight of birds. Painting these genetically edited butterflies, I was thinking about divination systems—in particular, how they function as mirrors. Regardless of whether these methods show us the future, they do show us ourselves. In them, we see our own hopes and anxieties mirrored. 

In these paintings, I see Ovid’s “forms transformed to bodies new and strange.” Which is to say I see the story of our origins playing out yet again: chaotic, circular, animal.

Kate Nichols ’04


Text and image courtesy of the artist.