'Iced Biscuits' digital image from the #flowcelluar exhibition. Credit: The Saturday Museum

Categories: Sanger Science22 April 20216.3 min read

Taking lockdown baking to a whole new level

To explore the science of cancer and ageing, scientists, artists and the public have been meeting virtually, in their kitchens, over the last 12 months. They have come together to discover and reflect on what happens to our DNA as we age, including scientific and personal perspectives. Their art, recipes and kitchen experiments will be open for viewing in a new online exhibition, called #flowcellular, launching on 26th April. As part of a wider public programme of events, this year’s Genome Lates talk season draws on the science at the heart of the #flowcellular project. The first event features discussions on the intersections of art and science and how lockdown shaped #flowcellular. The talks are free, online and suitable for all.

To find out more, or book your tickets, visit the Genome Gallery website. Here, Beth Elliott, one of the exhibition’s curators, reflects on the group’s creative, and tasty, journeys into science.

In February 2020, scientists based at the Wellcome Genome Campus whose research examines the effects of DNA damage and its relationship to cancer and ageing, got together with artists from the Saturday Museum, and public participants, to begin planning an exciting new creative project destined for the Wellcome Genome Campus’ Genome Gallery later that year.

However, within a month the world had been turned upside down as a result of the global pandemic, forcing us to temporarily close our doors to the public and seek alternative virtual platforms for engagement. Unable to meet in person, or inhabit our labs or studios spaces, we met via zoom and decided to make the kitchen our shared space. Through playful experiments using food, we have been discovering how resilient and clever our bodies are at mending DNA damage every day, and why diseases like cancer happen when the damage to our cells becomes too much. Our approach was playful, tactile, creative, messy and empathic. We have chopped, sliced, mixed, iced, stirred, boiled and kneaded. We have made everything from multi-coloured flat bread to animals from fruit, been sharing family recipes and imagining the future of food.

Melody Bottle, a project participant with lived experience of cancer recounts her experience of the project: “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been life changing for me, I didn’t expect it to be such an amazing project… I started to look at things in a completely different way. When I heard about the vaccines the first thing I wanted to know is how do they work?… [now] I want to know the science behind it, I wouldn’t have thought of that before, it would have just gone over my head.”

Everyone has generously shared their individual perspectives, knowledge, humour, and creative ideas. Together we have found a common language through food that has enabled us to connect with each other and find ways of understanding this often complex and emotive subject matter that affects us all. We have been able to share stories about our lives and loved ones and make a space for creative exploration in research in this time of social isolation. For some of us we are now viewing and contributing to science in ways we never thought possible. For others, we are now thinking differently about how we involve people more in our science, and have new questions we want to investigate as a result of these conversations.

Project participants Melody Bottle and Alex Cagan. Credit: The Saturday Museum

Alex Cagan, a researcher from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Cancer Ageing and Somatic Mutations programme, tells us: “I’ve been thinking of new experiments to do because of this project. When we were doing the fruit [DNA break and repair metaphor] we were talking about how some repair mechanisms are better than others, and then that made me think, ‘Well, how much better are they than others? We know some are better, but not really quantifiably…’ So I’ve been starting to think about how to design an experiment to test how much better one [mechanism of DNA repair] is than the other…. Playing around with things helps you think outside of the box, and it helps you to ask questions you might not have asked otherwise.”

Genetics plays a vital role in our lives whether we know it or not, and has been centre stage in recent months in the fight against COVID-19. We are now living in an age where cancer will directly affect 1 in 2 people over our lifetimes and 2021 marks 25 years since our pioneering colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute discovered the BRCA2 gene that can tell us if we have a hereditary risk of breast cancer. This discovery revolutionised cancer research and has had a hugely positive impact on survival rates for breast cancer, and other types of cancer, ever since.

For DNA Day 2021, we want to highlight the importance of this ground-breaking area of scientific endeavour into cancer and ageing, signpost people to the #flowcellular project and encourage others to explore the creative content online and try out our culinary experiments.

The virtual exhibition launches on 26th April with an online event and the satellite talks programme will run through to July. The events are all free to access online. To book go to Genome Gallery.

Lucy Steggals, an artist from The Saturday Museum, tells us: “It has been an extraordinary experience for George and I to collaborate from our kitchens in London and Athens with such a wonderful group of people, most of whom have never met each other in person. I have been amazed by everyone's warmth, humanity, commitment, creativity and especially for their capacity to play and experiment with the metaphor of food. We had a lot of fun, made a lot of mess and succeeded in generating more questions than we had when we started. It's been a zoom adventure, we hope our recipe book will live on to get stained, amended and inspire more rich conversations.”

'Fruit Animals'. Credit: The Saturday Museum

More information:

The Genome Gallery is based at the Wellcome Genome Campus about 12 miles south of Cambridge. The space is part of a wider public engagement resource within Wellcome Connecting Science, a major programme that enables everyone to explore genomic science and its impact on research, health and society. https://genome.gallery/

The Saturday Museum (TSM) is a collaborative project run by artists Lucy Steggals, who is based in London, and George Moustakas who is based in Athens. It is an itinerant, mobile museum exploring alternative models of co-creation and gentle ways to play with existing systems and infrastructures. TSM is interested in connecting people locally, nationally and internationally. The way it works is by intuitively starting a FLOW on a theme. FLOWs are flexible frames; soft structures; play spaces; allowing for something haptic and collaborative to evolve. FLOWs are a triangular – a combination of lived experience, digital dialogues and physical outputs. www.thesaturdaymuseum.org

The researchers in this project are based in the Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutations Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. They use cutting-edge genomic science to better understand the role DNA mutation plays in cell evolution, ageing and development. www.sanger.ac.uk

The public participants in this project are from collaborators at Addenbrooke’s Hospital Cancer Patient Partnership GroupCircuit Group Wysing Arts Centre and Kettle’s Yard, and Young Leaders from Science Gallery London.