A deeper dive into Arabidopsis Symphony: Sander van der Krol about plant research

14 november 2022

For Bio Orchestra, Tom Kortbeek from Fillip Studios and Sander van der Krol from Wageningen University analyzed the growth of Arabidopsis Thaliana plants

A deeper dive into the world of plants with dr.ir. Sander van der Krol

In view of our newest project Arabidopsis Symphony — which visualizes the hidden growth processes of plants — we wanted to shed some light on the extensive research done by Sander van der Krol (Wageningen Plant Research). Next to technical details about plants and research methods, we asked him about his vision of plant life, why he is so fascinated by it, and how Arabidopsis Symphony came about. The below text is based on Sander’s own words.

Boring plants?

Compared to animals, plants are often considered boring by people, because they are sessile and do not display any obvious dynamics. However, on the inside, plants are as dynamic as animals and perhaps even more so. Unlike animals — which can walk away from adverse conditions — plants have to cope with changes in their environment by adjusting their metabolism and growth.

Scientists utilize different techniques to measure and visualize these internal processes in plants. For instance, the daily changes in the activity of genes that are involved in the growth of the plant can be visualized by fusing a gene promoter (the switch that determines when and where it is active) with the gene from a firefly that encodes a protein that produces light.

Although internal changes are happening within seconds or minutes, we need to speed up time to be able to see the daily changes inside the plants. But when we do, we start to appreciate how dynamic plants really are. See, for instance, how these plants ‘dance’ when they start to bloom:

Timelapse of Arabidopsis Thalianas starting to bloom. — Wageningen Plant Research

Glowing plants for research

To study plant behavior, scientists prefer using practical plant species. Consequently, the small and common weed Arabidopsis Thaliana has become the first model plant for which the entire genome was already sequenced in the year 2000. However, knowing all the genes does not make it easier to understand how a plant works. For that, the scientist also needs information on when and where the genes are active.

So-called 'reporter plants': glowing Arabidopsis plants that show processes through light emission

So-called 'reporter plants'. — Wageningen Plant Research

Plants that contain the firefly gene (added artificially) produce a very weak light. Such ‘reporter plants’ can be monitored over time and, subsequently, tell us when a certain gene shows activity. More importantly, we can now change the environment by playing with temperature and light conditions and, in that way, visualize how a specific gene responds to such changes.

The genes that were chosen to couple with the firefly gene are key genes involved in the plant’s growth, perception of light, and biological clock. Publications about the analysis of these glowing plants — and how they helped to reveal how gene activity in the plant responds to temperature and light — can be found here, on PubMed.

A graph with many lines in different colors, showing the activity of multiple genes in glowing Arabidopsis plants

Graph of light activity in glowing plants during the germination phase. Each line represents a different gene. — Wageningen Plant Research

Making graphs and data tangible

Research with glowing plants resulted in hundreds of videos that show the daily rhythms of gene activity and how environmental signals cause subtle changes to these rhythms. When shown simply as a video, it can be quite difficult to really notice these changes and compare how different genes react under different circumstances. Of course, scientists also collect their data in graphs, but for most people, those graphs are only an incomprehensible code language.

From data to sound

To make complex patterns understandable, it helps to use different visualisation techniques. In 2016, the idea was born to convert the graph of a growing and glowing plant into sound, making the subtle changes in the graph audible. With this concept in mind, plant physiologist Sander van der Krol (Wageningen University & Research) started his search for a sound artist that could help him convert his videos and graphs into music.

At a speed-dating event of the BAD Awards (Bio Art & Design Awards), which stimulates artists and designers to create innovative projects in collaboration with scientists, Sander met Tom Kortbeek from Fillip Studios. The same year, Fillip Studios’ first artistic translation of Sander’s data achieved fourth place at the BAD Awards. A first try-out included the conversion of scientific data in a composition for four-handed piano:

One of the first translations of Sander's data. — Fillip Studios / Sander van der Krol

Evolution of the concept

The first product of this unique collaboration was the construction of the installation Bio Orchestra, a ‘plant organ’ with growing Arabidopsis plants. In Bio Orchestra, different gene activities produce different sound outputs, and passers-by can participate by modulating the sound. The feedback from the audience proved to be very useful in developing the first algorithms that converted scientific data from the Arabidopsis Thaliana to audio. These algorithms resulted in a musical composition by the composer Falk Hubner from Conservatory Utrecht, which was played live at the InScience film festival in Nijmegen. The plan was, back then, to tour around the world with an orchestra. But then Covid-19 came around the corner, and for obvious reasons, the project came to a halt.

Bio Orchestra by Fillip Studios & Sander van der Krol. — Video by Tanja Busking

Arabidopsis Symphony: a deep dive into the inner world of plants

With the support of Gemeente Arnhem, Fillip Studios was able to take a step back and adjust the concept to a more hybrid version, combining the digital with the real world. This led to the current concept of Arabidopsis Symphony; a combination of augmented reality and generative music. Powered by real-time local data of weather conditions and time of day, the digital plants of Arabidopsis Symphony react to their environment just like real plants do, but in a way that is accessible to everyone (not only scientists). The sound design is now done by Fillip Studios’ own Siebe de Vries, and makes use of a selection of gene measurements from ‘glowing plants’.

Arabidopsis Symphony by Fillip Studios_credits Fillip Studios-16

The end result: Arabidopsis Symphony, a combination of augmented reality and music.

Find out more about Arabidopsis Symphony