On walking into the small room in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, a viewer’s first thought might be of the Giant’s Causeway—the monumental, hexagonal columns of basalt in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Without an idea of scale, the collection of sketches, etchings, and photographs could represent these colossal structures; but instead they reveal information about a material many orders of magnitude smaller. Shell Meets Bone showcases the work of University of Glasgow artist in residence Rachel Duckhouse, who has worked with biomineral researchers to visualise the structure of mineral deposits on mother of pearl shells, a material known as nacre. She has spent time talking with researchers involved in the Medical Research Council’s project Stem Cell Metabolomics for Bone Therapies and Tissue Engineering and using a scanning electron microscope to visualise the structure of nacre. Her discussions with the researchers have centred on their efforts to understand how the hexagonal structure of the mineral deposits forms and develops in layers over time, and how stem cells use this dynamic topography to form bone. Ancient Mayans carved replacement teeth from mother of pearl shells, and subsequent analysis of implanted
teeth showed that connections were formed between the new tooth and the jaw. Researchers have replicated the microstructure of these shells in great detail. The most recent findings suggest that the physical pattern of the surface of nacre is the key to the interaction between bone and shell.
“…Duckhouse has produced a series of intricate images that not only show the beauty of the microstructure of nacre, but also inform researchers working to understand this material.” “We now know that stem cells form better bone on the surface of these shells than in a dish”, says Maggie Cusack, Dean of Natural Sciences at University of Stirling. Better understanding of the properties of nacre that promote growth of new bone could be invaluable to further biomedical advances in this area. Research into optimisation of support scaffolding for biological structures grown in vitro is a field of research in itself. The imperfect regularity of nacre topography and its osteogenic properties provide signposts for new approaches to bone therapy materials. Working with researchers with interests in bone, shells, and bio minerals, Duckhouse has produced
a series of intricate images that not only show the beauty of the micro structure of nacre, but also inform researchers working to understand this material. “I try to include the people I work with in the presented work”, she says, indicating a series of photographs in which hands of individual researchers are shown trying to demonstrate the creeping of cells across the microstructure of the shell surface. Her images could feel cold and abstract, but instead they almost seem animate—the cells moving on the nacre and the etchings seeming to stand proud of the paper to exhibit their three-dimensional structure. Working with Duckhouse has helped the researchers to visualise their current work, and also inspired them to think about their research in new ways. “Our conversations have been invaluable to my research”, says Cusack. “It’s great to have your research challenged by someone who is coming at the subject from a different angle”, she adds. This symbiotic relationship between art and scientific research is under threat, with scarce funding being reduced still further. The Leverhulme Trust, which funded Duckhouse on this project, has recently withdrawn funding for the artist-in-residence programme. Duckhouse is now hoping to work on a follow-on project with Nikolaj Gadegaard, a bioengineer at the University of Glasgow, since her sketches of overlaid dot matrices have sparked a line of enquiry: “he was using algorithms to model the structures, but adding my hand-drawn matrices added useful variation; they actually achieved more desirable results than computer-generated alone”. Inspiring and beautiful, Duckhouse’s work is an important contribution to this intriguing transdisciplinary area of research.
Exhibition Patterns to grow bone
Shell Meets Bone Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, until August 13, 2017 http://shellmeetsbone.tumblr. com/
Fiona Mitchell www.thelancet.com Vol 390 July 1, 2017