Art imitates life: Artist bioengineers replica of Van Gogh's ear

Story highlights

  • Using the science of tissue engineering, an artist created a replica of Vincent van Gogh's
  • The science behind the art could give researchers a new platform to study certain diseases

(CNN)Tissue engineering has given us some important medical and scientific advances: Layers of skin grown in the lab can be grafted onto wounds to help burn victims heal. Researchers are developing artificial lungs and livers that may one day be transplanted into patients.

But can tissue engineering also give us a new medium for art? It can for Diemut Strebe, a Boston-based artist who created a replica of Vincent van Gogh's famously amputated ear that is about as close to the real thing as you can get. The artistic experiment may even lead to new advances in the world of science.
    Strebe persuaded Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of Vincent's brother, to donate a chunk of the inside of his ear for the project. (Although it did not take much convincing because, according to Strebe, "he loved the project right away.") Then she worked with a "who's who" of engineers and scientists to grow Lieuwe's ear cells on a polymer-based scaffold that approximated the shape of Vincent's ear, based on the only known photograph of the artist showing the body part that was famously removed.
    The result is a piece named "Sugababe," currently on display at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York City, in a show of Strebe's work. The ear, which an art writer called "creepy" and Stephen Colbert called "the craziest (explicative) thing," made its debut last year at a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. It gets is name in part because of the sugar-white color of the ear.
    "I was looking for a more challenging, inspiring method to create contemporary art," said Strebe, a mother of five who started her art career only several years ago.
    Strebe's artistic experiment with the ear began in 2010 but it was inspired by a thought experiment dating back to ancient Greece, called Theseus' paradox. It asks whether an object that has had all of its parts replaced is still the same object. Scientific methods gave Strebe the means to explore this question with "maybe the most famous romantic and stereotypical image of the artist as a genius," Strebe said.
    "(In general), science and art go very well together," she said. "The Renaissance (period) showed that. Science can produce mediums for art, and perhaps art can give back to science."

    Can science imitate art?

    Strebe and her scientist collaborations are trying to create a new version of the ear that would be even more genetically related to the van Gogh original. But in order to do so, they are developing a new technology that would open the door to study a whole group of human diseases.
    Although most of the genetic material in the cells that make up "Sugababe" is related to Vincent's, the exception is the mitochondrial DNA, which is sort of an auxiliary set of genes that help cells generate energy. Lieuwe van Gogh has different mitochondrial DNA because he descended from a woman unrelated to van Gogh (and Vincent's brother), and mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively through the mother.
    To find related mitochondrial DNA, Strebe tracked down a descendent of Vincent's sister and got another van Gogh fami