Atlas: Where art aids science; spit crystals to desalination of sea water

Atlas: Where art aids science; spit crystals to desalination of sea water

August 15, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


My name is Inés Cámara Leret. I’m an Artist based at Somerset House
Studios in London and my work primarily deals with exploring life through materials
that are unseen static and inert. ‘Spit Crystal’ is essentially a perfectly
ordered crystal of saliva grown alongside the salivary researchers
and crystallographers based at King’s College London. So the first ‘Spit Crystal’ that was grown was commissioned by Science Gallery London through thier open-call ‘Mouthy’. And this is now I met the researchers
Brian, Alki, Jack, Matt and Lucy. When I First met Inés,
she presented this quite beautiful crystal and she called it ‘The Spit Crystal’. And, if I recall, she’d been
spitting in a bucket for a month or so and then had thrown in a whole load
of Aluminium Sulphate and let the water evaporate off
and it left a crystal. Obviously, saliva is used
in the making of it but my initial thoughts were
‘This is not a spit crystal’ this is not any of the components of
saliva crystallising but just an Aluminium Sulphate crystal. And that was one of the first comments
I mentioned to Inés and her initial reaction was,
“Great, let’s make a Spit Crystal then!” We took the saliva over to the
crystallography department they did thier crystallography magic! We talked about it and I convinced
her to dispense with the alum which was just a salt the
would grown large crystals. and see is we really could
crystallise spit itself. Taking some salivary fluid,
letting it dry out and in a think layer,
these beautiful fern patterns occur. Apparently different differing, according to the source
of the salivary fluid. Because what must be in the salivary fluid
is a mixture of salt and protein. Now, I know about proteins
and protein crystals But what exactly was going on in
these ferning patterns? We really didn’t know. We looked at the with
absolute amazement because they grow so quickly
you can watch the kenetics and growth
of these crystals. So it got really exciting at that stage just looking at these ferning patterns. But still, Inés wanted a crystal
that you could pick up and put on our defractometer
and make measurements the way we make measurements of
antibody crystals. After a few months of work,
and a lot of conversations that we had a lot of exchanges of information
and how we saw the different materials and what we were doing
with there processes we were able to grow
a crystal from saliva! And eventually, to our utter amazement,
one evening we actually saw this happen. amongst these ferning patterns
were some single crystals. And Alki, a member of my group,
a very experienced crystallagrapher was able to pick up one of
these tiny crystals. It was of salt, but it had grown out
of one of these ferning patterns and she put it on the defractometer
and collected some data. When we were lucky
working on ‘Spit Crystal’ and we saw this crystal which for me was huge
and for Inés was tiny! We wanted to shoot the
crystal with x-rays as I would do for my
research anyway. And see how is diffracts and understand, try to understand
what is in this crystal what have we crystallised? Because it can be only one thing
that we have crystallised. We did some mathematical calculations with
the diffraction of the spit crystal and it was sodium chloride Which was cool! Because I am a protein crystallographer and that was the first time the I,
after so many years working with crystallography, that I managed to see a salt crystal
and solve it manually! The result of ‘Spit Crystal’ and the fact that you either see
crystals or see ferning patterns led to a new collaboration,
with the name ‘Atlas’. And also another more
scientific collaboration which was
the desalination of seawater. Atlas is a way of reapplying what we’ve
learned from a previous collaboration on a microscopic level
to a worldwide problem that we have which is our access to
fresh water. The Atlas project is looking at
the same process we did with Spit Crystal with the ferning ability but actually using seawaters
as the fluid involved. So we’re been using protein to
create these ferning patterns. The idea behind it was to
manage to get clear water, without salt just by adding some some
drops of proteins into seawater and wait for the ferning to happen and then the salt goes away and then we get nice water
that people can drink. Desalinating seawater is a very
energy intense process because they use what’s called
‘Reverse Osmosis’ which is whereby the pump seawater
at very high pressures through tiny holes in tubes. And that takes a lot of pressure
and a lot of energy so desalinating seawater is a very
energy intense process which is why it it’s not really applicable
to all t he countries of the world or all the economies of the world.
It’s only for the very richest. Even if we could only reduce energy costs
by 10%, for example, say it was only a preliminary step
in the whole desalination process, It could have such a big impact that it’s actually easily worth exploring
these ferning processes. We’ve begun to create
an archive of seawater we’re inviting everyone, across the world,
to send us samples. People have actually been
incredibly generous not only have they sent me samples,
but they’ve also sent me notes, cards telling me about
their relationship with the sea. I’ve got a red envolope from Chi which, in his culture,
is a symbol of good luck. Also, people that have sent me images of the places they actually
collected the samples from. The fact that people from across the world
have sent me samples means, I guess,
that hope is not lost in that way that there’s still a huge amount of people that engage with the ocean
and that connect with the ocean in a very different way
to how we do with the land. And what we’re doing with those samples is we’re studying both
its composition, so any traces that it may have, but also observing
how it crystallises and what ferns it creates. It’s quite cool that we get to see differneces in ferning patterns
across the globe to see if there’s
any variation. It’s going to be important
to understand what is actually happening,
as well as just observing it. And we hope x-ray crystallography
will be able to contibute to that and tell us exactly
what the composition of these ferns are. It’s been really interesting to me to see the project,
the collaboration develop from this ‘Spit Crystal’
in one person’s hand to drawing seawater samples
from across the world. It really plays into the wishes I had
at the begining of getting involved with the work. I think collaborating with Inés
has been great because some times, in research,
you become very tunnel-visioned
and narrow-focused. But actually, in talks with Inés, it’s been great to take a step back
and see a broader picture. And collaborate with other groups,
which has been great. It’s been very interdisciplinary, x-ray crystallography,
here at The Randall Centre for Biophysics and of course the Dental Institute
and the salivary research group. And, of course, involving Inés
and the artistic side as well. So it’s been a very wide collaboration. ‘Spit Crystal’ and the
desalination of seawater extraordinarily diverse
but fascinating ideas!