Banana Bacteria is an olfactory work that explores the paradox of having the foul smell of E. coli bacteria exchanged with the sweet smell of banana. Engineered E. coli, designed by the MIT iGEM 2006 team, have been genetically altered by removing a gene responsible for the foul smell commonly found in bacteria and adding a genetic design that enables them to synthetically produce banana oil. With these scents prompting a rethinking of the human race’s microbial relationship, Banana Bacteria investigates how synthetic biology can bring new experiences of organisms and, in this case, new scents.
Upon receiving a library of standardised parts from the MIT Registry of Standard Biological Parts, the process of putting plasmids containing the genetic parts into cells began. Using antibiotic selection, colonies were picked and grown in liquid culture. Cultures were scaled up to grow in 200ml bottles and once turbid or dense, these were placed on ice and a small amount of isoamyl alcohol was added, allowing the conversion process to commence. The setup uses round shaped flasks as vessels for the liquid culture, mounted on a laboratory stand with a glass cap. In order to harness the experience and ensure the smell’s clarity, a special odourless knockout strain (a strain that has inactivated, or ‘knocked out’, an existing gene by replacing it or disrupting it with an artificial piece of DNA) was obtained from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Because lysogeny broth, a nutritionally rich medium used for the growth of bacteria, produces a sweet caramel-like scent, a scentless growth medium was prepared.
While scientifically Banana Bacteria illustrates how synthetic biology can impact the flavouring industry, artistically it offers an olfactory awareness that both confuses and challenges our senses; the foul warning smell of bacteria is exchanged with the sweet smell of banana. Speculative scenarios are posed about future applications, such as how bacteria inhabiting humans could be made to produce synthetic odours, like possibly replacing bad breath with minty fresh breath. The focus, however, is on the intimate experience of this setup, in terms of the audience interacting with genetically modified (GM) organisms and enabling such access by publicly staging the work. In contrast, the smell as an interaction provides an actual and immediate experience beyond speculation that renegotiates the way bacteria are thought of aesthetically.
As an artist working with synthetic biology on a material level, a key question has been: How can I enable actual experiences and how would I go about doing this in a public setting? I look at tiny cells and invisible processes and ask how we can experience this world through our senses — be it seeing or smelling. Ultimately, I ask if we could produce realtime interaction with real-time biological processes. Banana Bacteria enables the strange and wonderful experience of moving a gene and adding a new quality to a material, and also how this confuses our senses. Putting such material in public spaces can be challenging, but the importance of being able to experience such matter in its actual presence rather than being mediated through videos or photographs invites us to get closer to both natural and unnatural organisms.”