In The Man Who Touched His Own Heart I tell the story of the artist Leonardo da Vinci’s discoveries inside bodies. Among the most astonishing of his efforts came late one afternoon in 1508 when…

[D]a Vinci was at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, a church hospital. He was not a doctor, but he already knew more about the human body than almost anyone else who had ever lived. He was talking with a very old man, a centenarian. The man, who is known to history simply as il vecchio, the old one, was kind and garrulous. He had lived a grand life. Da Vinci had just returned from Milan, and he was dressed in fine clothes—maybe his purple cloak, maybe the pink cape; he was worldly and beautiful. Da Vinci bent over il vecchio, his fingers touching the old man’s onion-thin skin gently. Then, suddenly, the man died. He died as if struck down. Da Vinci held the man with great kindness before pulling out his knives and beginning to dissect his body. He cut into the warm skin. This may well have been the world’s first autopsy, from the Greek “to see for oneself,” which is precisely what da Vinci wanted to do (…).

Il vecchio was, by some accounts, the first person da Vinci had ever dissected. The artist began with cuts to the chest, but he moved slowly. The man’s body was smaller and more delicate than that of the horses and cows he had handled before. Da Vinci would need patience if he were to see each piece well—each finger, each toe, each vein, bone, or nerve. No cuts would be spared and after each cut a drawing would be done, to understand but also, simultaneously, to improve in the skill of depiction of the inner truths. Da Vinci did not know what he was looking for. He was exploring. So little was known about the body—there had been virtually nothing since Galen, and da Vinci did not read Latin, so even Galen’s advances were garbled in translation — that anything seemed possible. Perhaps the liver exploded. Perhaps the brain turned yellow. A million, trillion scenarios lurked in the skin and organs, none of them any more likely than any other. Da Vinci pondered what he saw.

Like some of his contemporaries, da Vinci began to dissect bodies for art, to improve the way he drew human and animal forms.”

In dissecting this old man’s body, da Vinci discovered, for the first time, atherosclerosis, the clogging of the arteries. Da Vinci would go on to make many other discoveries about the cardiovascular system, some of which I detail in the book. Da Vinci was able to make these discoveries in part because he approached the human body with the eye and needs of an artist. He saw everything; he saw in order to depict. Da Vinci’s corporeal revelations are emblematic of the power of art to transform science, or they would be if not for one caveat. Da Vinci did not convey his discoveries to anatomists during his lifetime (the artists who dissected and the anatomists who did the same traveled in different circles). As a result of this and other quirks of da Vinci’s story his deep insights into the workings of the cardiovascular system did not become part of scientific knowledge until they were rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s. Da Vinci’s story is a lesson both in the value of art (and artists) to science and in the importance of friendships between artists and scientists.

In this light, I am delighted to report on two new partnerships between my lab, the  NC Museum of Natural Sciences and artists, partnerships that allow us to consider the limits of science, the limits of art and the ways in which these limits might be transcended collaboratively.

We worked with Victoria Shennan in the early stages of her new effort to turn the composition of the microbes on the skin to music. Much of modern microbial science makes discoveries based on the study of the DNA found in samples from skin, feces or other realms.  Through computer software–algorithms–this decoded DNA is turned, translated really, into an identification, a name such as Bacillus or Staphylococcus. In other cases, scientists translate the genetic code of microbes into the protein (and its structure) encoded by those same letters (much as occurs in the living cell itself). The approach of studying the life on or in us as a function of its DNA or RNA (or even proteins) is central to most discoveries made in the last decade. Yet, compared to growing bacteria in the lab, it is an indirect depiction. The distance between how scientists describe the species they encounter and the physical form of the species themselves is great. The name Bacillus no more richly summarizes the bacteria it denotes than your first name summarizes you. The distance between name and organism can have the effect of turning the sophisticated machine of a cell into something far less so, a sketch sucked of its colorful, majesty. It was precisely this missing majesty that Shennan hoped to restore through art.

The specific microbial science Shennan hoped to enliven related to the differences in the kinds of microbes found on one body part relative to another. Several years ago we (the scientists) conducted a study in which students sampled their skin microbes repeatedly during the semester to understand how those microbes change through time, whether this change is dependent on where the students live, and the extent to which the microbes living on different parts of the skin are consistently (through time, despite geography) different. In short, while the microbes in some places on the body (the gut, for instance) vary little through time, those in other places (the hands) vary much more. The extent of this variation can be characteristic of individual humans. Some humans have much more variable microbes than do others (probably to their detriment). But even as Gilbert Flores, who led this project, wrote up all of these results it was clear that the ways in which we were able to describe how microbes varied from moment to moment, part to part, person to person, were coarse, crayon sketches of a vast universe of shimmering cells.

In light of Gilbert’s work,  Shennan decided to focus on one aspect of this translation. She’d consider the differences in microbes from one body part to another. On the basis of Gilbert’s work, Shennan identified some of the microbes most characteristic of different patches of skin. She then used the DNA and protein of these and related organisms to produce music. She did this in two steps and with different collaborators. First, she “translated” short DNA sequences into notes with a composer, Jack Hurst.These notes represent the four letter codes of the DNA, each with its own tone.  Separately, she worked with Dr. Linda Long who produced three dimensional, digital reconstructions of proteins of common skin microbes (proteins encoded, of course, by the DNA of those microbes);  the shapes of those proteins were then turned into swooping melodies that layered over the DNA background (for more on Linda Long’s approach see The art of Shennan and her collaborators, which you hear as you read this piece, reminds us that the ways in which we turn the genetic code of nucleotides or the shapes of proteins into meaning is not preordained. We can decode nucleotides into names, and proteins into cellular functions but we can just as readily translate them into music and it is through doing the latter that art reminds us of the awe implicit in the organism. Where we say “bird,” Shennan plays us the song. The world is richer for it.

On an independent (but related) project Joana Ricou worked with us to sample belly buttons of participants in our belly button biodiversity project. We have been studying belly buttons for years now as a measure of the life on our skin. In studying belly buttons we have been particularly interested in the interplay between host (you) and microbes (them) and the extent to which in this interplay the realities of us and them are blurred (symbiosis). In considering belly button microbes, Joana sought to revisit this blurring and the interactions central to it, the interactions between participant and scientist (or artist) and the interaction between microbe and participant. You can see more about Joana’s work with belly button biodiversity portraits here. She talks to participants. She has the participants talk to their microbes. She let’s the microbes, in their growth, tell their own stories. Joana’s work is superficially fun, but, more deeply, powerful. While it may seem ridiculous to invite people to talk to their microbes, the act of doing so reminds us of a reality we are quick to forget. While our conscious minds find it unusual to talk to brainless life forms (or to hear their nucleotide songs), our subconscious bodies talk to the microbes every moment of every day, exchanging signals to which we are not privy.

Whether the art of Ricou or Shennan will help us toward a transformation that alters our understanding of the world we don’t yet know. If they are to change science through art the next steps will have to come not just from the art but instead through conversations between artist and scientist. Da Vinci was, in a single man, both great artist and great scientist. His limit was his disconnection from the latter of those two fields. I suppose in seeking modern discoveries akin to his we could find artists who are simultaneously ground breaking scientists. Alternatively, we can do as we have done here. Artists and scientists can work together. But to have lasting impact this work must occur iteratively with artist and scientist trading acts in the theatre of discovery, until, like the microbes and their hosts, something is achieved that makes little sense when considered independently, a symbiosis of art and science that makes each greater and more true.


To see the work of Ricou and Shennan in person, visit The Wellcome Trust funded human microbiome exhibit, Invisible You at The Eden Project in Cornwall, UK.