After viewing Little Shop of Horrors, Andrew Pelling and his research group wondered if they could create a plant with muscles. They were inspired by Audrey II, the monster plant that eats people in the 1986 film. They tried and failed to grow muscle tissue on a leaf, but the attempt sparked a research direction that has blossomed in Pelling’s group over the past decade: plant- and polymer-based scaffolding for growing mammalian tissue. Recently, he says, they have shown that an asparagus-derived scaffold can guide the growth of neurons for use in treating spinal cord injuries. They have also been studying a new polymer scaffold developed by a textile artist in the lab.
From the start, Pelling’s research group in the physics department at the University of Ottawa has included a mix of scientists and artists—sculptors, painters, digital media artists, and others; at present 3 of the roughly 15 members are artists. “Every artist I’ve known is busy questioning and investigating the world, just like scientists,” Pelling says. He aims to generate questions that haven’t been asked before. “For me, the best way to do that is by having diverse people around, sharing lunch, shooting the breeze.” The interactions, he says, have led to both museum pieces and scientific advances.
Science and art often are compartmentalized—as is also the case for subdisciplines within science. But it hasn’t always been like that—consider, for example, Leonardo da Vinci, who studied friction and other topics, or his 15th-century contemporary Piero della Francesca, a painter and author of mathematical treatises. Today, connections range from science-inspired art, to art as a vehicle to explain or illustrate science, to science explored by artists, to—perhaps most rare—collaborations that advance scientific understanding.
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