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  • Growing Semi-Living Sculptures:The Tissue Culture & Art Project
  • Oron Catts (bio) and Ionat Zurr (bio)

Tissue engineering promises to replace and repair body organs but has largely been overlooked for artistic purposes. In the last 6 years, the authors have grown tissue sculptures, "semi-living objects," by culturing cells on artificial scaffolds. The goal of this work is to culture and sustain for long periods tissue constructs of varying geometrical complexity and size, and by that process to create a new artistic palette to focus attention on and challenge perceptions regarding the utilization of new biological knowledge.

The core of the Tissue Culture & Art (TC&A) Project is the artistic manipulation of living materials using the tools of modern biological research in order to sharpen questions arising from the utilization of these new sets of tools. Prevailing Western views of a nature-culture dualism can be challenged by putting into practice newly acquired knowledge in biology. Synthesizing biological processes and materials can help us understand that humans and their extended phenotype (the external manifestation of our genes expressed through our culture and technologies) are an integral part of what we call nature, and we therefore have to develop a new set of references in order to understand the implications of our deeds.

Many artists are directing their attention to the consequences of deciphering the genetic code. Our work deals with another level of the biological system-that of the cell and communities of cells: tissue. The interaction with nature that we offer is the manipulation and direction of the growth and three-dimensional formation of tissue on scaffoldings that we provide. Our work is conceptually closer to cybernetics, machine/ nature hybrids and the effect of technologies on complex biological systems, than to molecular biology-based art-although we often use genetically modified cells and utilize other aspects of molecular biology. We are exploring the formation of a new class of objects/beings, which we refer to as "semi-living" objects.

The Tissue Culture & Art Project (initiated by Oron Catts in 1996) was set up to explore questions arising from the use of living tissues to create/grow semi-living objects/sculptures and to research the technologies involved in such a task.

What is Tissue Engineering?

Tissue engineering deals with constructing artificial support systems (with the use of bio-materials) to direct and control the growth of tissue in a desired shape in order to replace or support the function of defective or injured body parts. It is a multi-disciplinary field that involves biologists, chemists, engineers, medical practitioners and now, artists. "In essence, new and functional living tissue is fabricated using living cells, which are usually associated in one way or another with a matrix or scaffolding to guide tissue development" [1].

The use of embryonic and progenitor (adult) stem cells increases the potential for tissue engineering to fabricate complex organs outside of the body. In principle, stem cells can differentiate into any kind of specialized cells by entering discrete lineage pathways (which involves the action of specific growth factors and/or cytokines and other internal and external factors). This means that stem cells can be seeded on a 3D scaffold laced with different growth factors. Growth factors are proteins that bind to receptors on the cell surface, with the primary result of activating cellular proliferation and/or differentiation. Many growth factors are quite versatile, stimulating cellular division in numerous different cell types, while others are specific to a particular cell type [2] and can be used in specific areas in order to grow complex organs that consist of many cell types [3].

The TC&A Hypothesis

It is now feasible to use tissue-engineering techniques to create custom-made replacement organs. They can also be used for the design and construction of 3D living-tissue assemblies that can be sustained alive for long periods of time in vitro. If

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Fig 1.

A layer of bone tissue differentiated from pig's mesenchymal cells (bone marrow stem cells) after 4 months of culture. (© Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Photo © Ionat Zurr.)

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we are able to grow something as complex...