Biotechnology from the Blue Flower

Artists Anna Dumitriu and Alex May are working with CHIC Consortium members to develop a new sculptural and bio-digital installation entitled “Biotechnology from the Blue Flower” and will be spending time on site with consortium members over the life of the project. In 2019 the artists attended the consortium meeting in Madrid and have been working with chicory roots in their studio, and in February 2020 they will be visiting Wageningen Plant Research, Sensus and KeyGene as part of their research with more visits to come. 

Dumitriu and May are exploring the internal and external morphology of chicory plants and well as the history and cultural impacts of the plants throughout history, for example as an ancient remedy, a natural dye, or a coffee additive in times of crisis and they aim to make links between those earlier histories and the cutting edge contemporary research being explored today by the CHIC Consortium, especially and the potential future benefits of working with new plant breeding methods techniques such as CRISPR to provide future healthcare and food security benefits. 

Chicory was one of the plants (along with the cornflower) that inspired the idea of the Blue Flower in German Romanticism – a central symbol of the movement. The romantic movement was in part a reaction to the industrial revolution and held nature and emotion in high esteem. The artists told us “we feel that we are now experiencing a biotechnological revolution and it’s fascinating again this idea of the blue flower becomes an important symbol again, but this time in a more complex position at the interface of nature and technology. Central to societal explorations of what may be acceptable in terms of synthetic biology and how ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ may be defined in the future.” 

The artists are focussing on the areas of the use of chicory for dietary fibre and its impact on human health and the human microbiome, antibiotics, and the uses of inulin and medicinal terpenes extracted from Cichorium intybus (common chicory). They are working with the plants themselves: the roots, the flowers, chicory flour and chicory inulin and terpenes, as well as other potential materials they might discover. These sculptural, physical materials will be fused with video footage from the laboratory and data visualisations derived from the research processed through 3D scanning and modelling techniques to create a final installation with outcomes being developed throughout the life of the project. The artists are especially keen to work with CRISPR, as a development to Anna Dumitriu’s earlier works with synthetic biology, such as “Make Do and Mend”, which the CRISPR Journal described as “Perhaps the First Application of CRISPR gene editing technology in BioArt” Keep up to date with the artists at and  

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Māori tribes, or “Iwi”, are well integrated into modern society but generally retain very strong links to their traditional land and communities. Those that have remained rural, have been very reliant on agricultural and forestry for their livelihoods. Many individuals who have migrated to the cities have maintained strong links to regional areas. Uptake of new technologies by Māori has usually been quick, except in cases where economic hardship has prevented uptake. However, as far as genetic techniques are concerned, the literature suggests there are more Māori positioned on the anti-GM end of the spectrum.  

Māori are innovative. As traditionally they were agriculturally based, being farmers and harvesters of seafood, trying new things and approaches was and is important. However, GM or gene editing challenges several culturally-specific sensitivities.  An example is a stronger sense of relatedness/genealogy (termed whakapapa) is a key concept for Māori communities. DNA, and its change, over the generations is therefore generally a more sensitive issue to Māori than European groups. Similarly, it is generally thought it is better to not change the essence (termed mauri) of a species as each species has its own unique qualities. 

Where Māori farmers are involved their agricultural practices are modern. One aspect to remember is that Māori farmers are unlikely to shift production to other places, as they are on a certain area of land long-term (due to their strong sense of belonging to the land, as well as owning the land). There is a wide range of farming practices amongst the Māori community from basic farming through to highly technological farming including organics. 

Many of the tools developed by CHIC for general audiences will transfer. More emphasis on open conversations and debate (meetings termed, “hui”); these are the practice by which Māori groups come to a consensus. However, centralized decision making (such as a Government law or policy) isn’t the best way of convincing Maori groups. Local and regional discussions are more important; catchphrase – Local issues, local solutions.  

Long-term plans are more important than short-term gains. Climate change is a major concern. Māori have a strong sense of guardianship (kaitiakitanga) over their land and resources and climate change threatens this.  

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