From Outside the Window to Inside the Cell: How Photography has Broadened Our View of the World

Photography. From the time the first image was captured almost 200 years ago, people have been using photography techniques to record, improve and expand their world.  Joseph Nicéphore Niépce is credited with capturing the very first photograph—a view of outside his window—using a technique called heliography. From that blurry, one-of-a-kind print to the stunning images captured today we can capture using our mobile phones, the advances in personal photography have been phenomenal. But progress has not been limited to capturing images of the world we see, scientists have leveraged these advances into new tools to capture images of the world we can’t see.

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Making “Scents” of the Mysterious Science of Plant Odors

Corpse flower in bloom
Photo credit: “titan arum 01” by illumine23 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When it comes to plant aromas, we tend to forget that we, as humans, are not the target audience, and these odors were not designed with us in mind—we are really passive spectators to a show that luckily most of us happen to enjoy. This past spring Mother Nature demonstrated just what it means to have a target olfactory audience at Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens. For the first time in about 12 years, one of the four massive titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) plants that reside at Olbrich bloomed, an event that typically only happens for 24-48 hours at a time and 4-5 times total throughout this plant’s roughly 40 year lifespan. More informally (and aptly) known as the “corpse flower” due to its carcass-adjacent coloring and distinctly foul odor, hundreds of plant enthusiasts and hopeful spectators queued for hours to catch a glimpse and whiff of the pungent plant. Until rare events like this happen, it can be easy to forget just how interesting and complex plants really are. We romanticize and lend meaning to flowers and relish in the sweet fragrance they provide, while often completely overlooking the intricate biological and chemical processes that comprise the science of floral scent.

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Urs Albrecht Winning Photographer of the Promega AG Art + Science Competition

The Albrecht Group in the Department of Biology at the University of Fribourg, investigates circadian rhythms in biological systems. Recently Urs Albrecht submitted a photo of baby squid for the Swiss Art + Science Competition sponsored by Promega AG. We have covered squid communication in a separate blog. Here we talk to him about the photo and the inspiration behind it.

How did you become interested in squids as an experimental model?

headshot of Dr. Urs Albrecht
Dr. Urs Albrecht

My lab works mainly with mice. Other professors work with different organisms such as Drosophila, C. elegans, plants, and yeast at our university. One of them, Simon Sprecher, became interested in marine biology and started a course for students. I immediately thought that’s a great idea because it is something different, and few actually look deeply into the biology of marine organisms. The literature on squids is scarce and old, and they are challenging to keep in lab conditions. Yet, my colleague ordered Loligo vulgaris eggs from Villefranche Sur Mer in France and started establishing them to hatch and grow in Fribourg. He was successful. The next step was setting up experimentation. However, squids have brains, and to carry out experiments with them, we needed to apply for authorization from the Swiss Government. I helped out, but it was challenging because there were no standards and regulations, as nobody works on these animals in Switzerland. Now we are interested in studying the communication between squids. It is easy to observe how they change color, because they are transparent. The change in color is related to their stress level and mood.

What went into taking the image “One Out”?

I’ve been a hobby photographer since I am ten years old. So when I went to my colleague’s lab and looked at the baby squids, I said, “Ohh, they are beautiful.” They looked really stunning, and some of them started changing colors in front of me. I thought that was a fascinating behavior, and I wanted to capture that.

One Out by Urhs Albrect Baby Squid communicating with color

Baby squids are transparent and colorful. I had to think about how I could best picture them. I decided to have them in a Petri dish and put them on a stand with lighting coming from below on a black background. I made several images. On one of them, there was this situation where one of the squids was changing color. It was very different from all the others. It immediately came to my mind that something was happening. They were communicating.

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World Art Day: Experiences of Fine Art That Disrupt and Drive Innovation

This metal sculpture adorns the parking garage that serves Promega Kornberg and Feynman buildings on the Madison, WI, USA campus.
This metal sculpture adorns the parking garage that serves Promega Kornberg and Feynman buildings on the Madison, WI, USA campus.

World Art Day embraces art as a means for nurturing creativity and innovation, gaining greater understanding of cultural experiences that are different from our own, and showcasing the contributions of art and artists to sustainable development. It is no accident that World Art Day is celebrated on the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, the celebrated Italian polymath who used art to express emotions, articulate technological concepts well before their time, and understand the workings of human anatomy.

Takaski Mitachi, a moderator of the 2019 global conference panel on Innovation through Art: Leveraging Disruption for a Sustainable Ecosystem, said that “Art can add value so that we could drive innovation beyond logic and data.” In a sense, the fine arts are a way of expressing our observations about the world around us, similar to how an original scientific hypothesis attempts to explain phenomena we observe and want to test. While scientific investigation builds on data and logic to test a hypothesis, art gives us a different way of knowing our world that extends beyond just data and logic. When we explore the arts, we broaden our understanding and interpretation of the world and bring these new perspectives to our scientific and technological explorations. Art is a disruptor of staid ways of thinking about and approaching problems, and like many other disruptors in our world, it can drive innovation.

In an article in the MIT Technology Review, author Sarah Lewis discusses the relationship between the arts and scientific breakthroughs. She notes one study that found a disproportionately high number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists also pursue art, writing or music as serious avocations. When asked why achievement in art and science seem to go together, she replied: “What the arts allow us to do is develop the muscle required for discernment and also strengthen our sense of agency to determine for ourselves how we’re going to tackle a given problem…Ultimately it’s up to the person creating the work to determine what that path is, and that kind of agency is what’s required for innovation.”

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5 Blogs that Made us Celebrate in 2021

The past twelve months have, quite literally, been a year. As 2021 comes to a close, it’s that time to reflect on some of our most popular stories written by our Promega Connections bloggers from the past year. Take a look at five Promega blog posts that gave us a reason to celebrate in 2021.

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Feeling Festive with Ion Channels

The tight embrace of welcoming hugs, the cozy warmth of a crackling fireplace, the brisk chill of afternoon walks in snowy woods—these are some of the feelings that, for me, make the winter holidays one of the best times of the year. This season, I’m also choosing to be thankful for the biology that makes these sensations possible.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine went to two scientists who discovered the receptors that allow us to sense touch and temperature. Joining other sensory mechanisms recognized by the Nobel committee, these discoveries add to our knowledge of how we interact with the world around us.

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Celebrating STEM/STEAM Day with UW-Madison’s Cool Science Image Contest

November 8th is National STEM/STEAM Day. For 11 years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cool Science Image Contest has celebrated and embraced the art of science. The contest illuminates art in the STEM/STEAM field as students, faculty, and staff submit images and videos that capture science or nature and leave a lasting impression of beauty or wonder. 

This year’s 2021 submissions were created with point-and-shoot digital cameras, cutting-edge microscopes, and both backyard and mountaintop telescopes. Contestants captured the art of science from the massive to the minute. Winning entries showcased animals and plants, the invisibly small structures all around us, and stars and nebulae resting lightyears away from Earth.

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Don’t Dump your Pumpkin! Post-Halloween Uses

Pumpkins have historically been a sure sign of the Halloween season in the United States. Although they are most used for Halloween, there are many ways to use pumpkins after those spooky October days.

Every year in America, more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkin gets tossed in the trash and wasted. Instead of leaving them to rot in the landfill, try one of these ways to get more use out of your pumpkin after this year’s Halloween!

Hopefully, after reading this list, you are able to revel in the fact that a pumpkin is not just for Halloween. Not only can this help you save money, save time, and cook delicious dishes, but it also takes a much more eco-friendly approach instead of wasting food or creating garbage.

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Five Fun Facts About Sloths and Three Things We Can Learn from Them

Sloths. These slow-moving, baby-faced, tree-dwelling mammals have risen to stardom in recent years, with their chubby, bandit-masked faces appearing on everything from socks and t-shirts to coffee mugs and post-it notes. We can all agree they are cute, but how much do we know about them?

Picture of a sloth hanging from a branch. Sloths are tree dwelling mammals.
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Five– Not COVID-19– Stories that Made Us Smile in 2020

illustration of our  favorite five non-pandemic stories of 2020

There has been no shortage of amazing science stories in 2020, a year where so many scientists have been working in overdrive focused on the pandemic. Everyone working hard to understand SARS-CoV-2 deserves recognition, but we thought we would take a lighter approach and share five favorite non-pandemic stories from throughout the year. Hint, they are all about animals.

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