Center for Plant Immigrant Integration
by: Kuang-Yi Ku, artist in residence in collaboration with scientist Sofie Goormachtig (VIB)
Artist Kuang-Yi Ku and scientist Sofie Goormachtig (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie) are the residents of STUDIOTOPIA Art&Science Programme hosted by GLUON. Their common project Centre for Plant Immigration Integration explores the relationship between plant and bacteria as a metaphor for interethnic human interaction.
Scientist Sofie Goormachtig’s citizen science project is looking for the possibility of growing soybean in the Flanders area, in order to provide it as a high-protein crop, an eco-friendly meat alternative for the future. Her research especially focuses on the interaction between soybean (a foreign tropical plant) and a local soil microorganism which performs symbiotic nitrogen fixation.
This research gave artist Kuang-Yi Ku an interesting inspiration to explore the similarity between the plant-microbe research and the social phenomena of immigrant-integration in Europe.
“Center for Plant Immigrant Integration” will be co-built by Ku and Goormachtig. It is a fictional institution which deals with the legal visa application and interspecies integration of plant immigrants. In this project, the fictional centre works on their first client, soybean, who wants to apply to work and live in West-Europe.
The centre will provide its expertise to help soybean to create its own profile and to integrate to the local environment with the help of a local endemic microorganism. The artist and scientist plan to explore how to create a series of fictional, visual and metaphorical narrations that reflect the controversy of interethnic relationship with human immigrants.
What involves Sofie Goormachtig’s research in 2021?
To find endogenous rhizobia able to nodulate soybean plants in Belgian environmental conditions, the Goormachtig lab will attract 1000 citizens spread over Flanders to grow soybean plants in their gardens. Candidates will sow soybean seeds in May 2021 and will grow the plants for a minimum of two months (until July/August 2021), which allows the development of mature nodules.
In the summer of 2021, plants will be collected and nodules will be assessed in the lab. The scientists will determine several important plant growth parameters such as plant height, fresh weight (FW) and chlorophyll content, after which all nodules will be collected. For every plant, nodule number, size, form and colour (i.e. red colour = fixing, white = non-fixing) will be microscopically determined.
To identify the residing rhizobia, nodules will be further processed in two parallel approaches. On the one hand, nodules will be crushed and the extract will be plated out on special rhizobia-specific growth media to allow growth of slow- and fast-growing rhizobia. Individual rhizobia colonies will be picked for high-throughput species-level identification using the matrix-assisted laser desorption-ionization time-of-flight (MALDI-TOF) MS method coupled with SPeDE. SPeDE is a spectral data analysis tool which enables a rapid species-specific and strain-level characterization and dereplication of isolates. For all colonies for which no identification is possible through mass spectra, basic 16S rRNA gene amplicon PCR will be performed.
On the other hand, in parallel, nodules of the same plant will be surface sterilized and DNA will be extracted to perform 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing to uncover the most abundant rhizobia strain and to visualize the nodule microbial diversity. By using these two complementary approaches, the identity of the individual isolate can be easily correlated with the most abundant rhizobia strain to perform confirmation experiments. To confirm the nodulation capacity of the selected rhizobia, inoculation experiments will be performed in the lab. Soybean plants will be grown in an inert and sterile substrate and the selected rhizobia candidate will be used to inoculate. After 4 weeks of growth, nodule number will be determined. When nodules are found, we are one step closer to an optimal soybean-rhizobia partnership which will be further analyzed in future and more applicable experiments.
Constructing a fictional centre for plant immigrant
Inspired by Sofie Goormachtig’s research, Kuang-Yi Ku plans to visually analyze the research results from Goormachtig’s project in 2019/2020 as preliminary research for the construction of “Center for Plant Immigrant Integration”. Secondly, he plans to collect the samples such as the soybean, microbes and soils from some of the 1000 locations in Flanders in 2021. After the field research, he also plans to go to Goormachtig’s lab to see how the scientists conduct their experiments of these samples and to make the visual documentation as material for the next phase of artistic creation.
Artist Kuang-Yi Ku attempts to analyze the visual documentation from the field research. He plans to use this visual material to construct the fictional institution “Center for Plant Immigrant Integration” by creating the plant migration visa, plant’s profile, the activities between local microbes and the foreign plant and so on. Through these fictive infographics, prints, documents, videos, this project attempts to use the metaphor to reflect the current social issues of immigration
integration. The comparison between interethnic interaction and nonhuman interspecies interaction in this project also provide a unique perspective to see the complicated relationship between “nature” and “culture”.
Possible responses to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
The collaboration between art and science not only can provide new possibilities of artistic practice but also create unique ways of interpretation of science. Artist Kuang-Yi Ku thinks this kind of interdisciplinary practice can engage the general public into a scientific context by a very different trajectory. It might contribute to the field of science communication, science education and other science-related fields as well. The interweaving of art and science also has a strong potential to react to the global issues regarding the UN’s sustainable development goals. For example, scientist Sofie Goormachtig’s citizen science project reflects many goals of the “SDG 2: Zero hunger”, such as “Target 2.4 Sustainable food production and resilient agricultural practices”. The collaboration with artist Kuang-Yi Ku in “Center for Plant Immigrant Integration” will be inspired by Goormachtig’s research and will be derived to a broader scale of reflection. This project plans to use plant-microbe’s interspecies interaction as a metaphor to invite the audience to rethink the social controversy of immigrant integration. The comparison between human immigrant integration and non-human interspecies integration in this project could possibly also reflect some of the goals in “SDG 10: Reducing inequalities”, such as “Target 10.7: Responsible and well-managed migration policies”.
Watch the guided tour of the VIB/ILVO soy fields last summer and the talk 'Genetic biotech through the eyes of artists' in the framework of Ars Electronica Festival 2020.
Find out more about Kuang Yi-Kus' work.
Read more about Sofie Goormachtig.
Find out more about GLUON.
"Center for Plant Immigrant Integration" hosted by GLUON is part of the STUDIOTOPIA project supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.
Photo: © Kuang-Yi Ku