Microbiome Security Agency
Q: Emma, your work, called The MSA, is about bacteria traces we pick up and leave behind in our daily lives. Why is this a privacy-issue? Why should we be concerned about it? What do you fear?
Emma: Well, the main thing I fear is living in a world where we don’t examine, prototype and try on a range of futures. I think artists and designers can play a very impactful role in thinking through and creatively exploring emerging realities. The arts can help us explore and work towards a future we want to inhabit.
The MSA itself is a project about empowerment rather than fear. We’re beginning to see that, like our trail of digital information, we also leave a trail of microorganisms around the world. Each of us has our own unique composition of bacteria in and on our bodies that changes based on who and what we’re around. I began to wonder, if properly analyzed, could these traces of bacteria tell a story about what we’ve been up to?
Q: So this work is not about digital traces but about microbes, MSA as opposed to NSA. What’s the connection?
Emma: If an individual’s makeup of bacteria in and on their body (their microbiome) differs depending on where they’ve been and who they’ve been around, can our trail of biological data be collected and databased in the same way the NSA collects phone data? The MSA (The Microbiome Security Agency) was created to test out this possibility and to do the opposite of the NSA. Instead of collecting and analyzing this data, could we obscure it and find ways to help citizens protect their own privacy?
To do this, we created DNA “Obscuration Solutions” in the form of a mist, gel or powder that can be applied to the skin. These synthetic DNA solutions essentially add noise and obscure the traces of bacteria on our skin, making us look like we’ve been around different people and places than we actually have been around.
Q: Guus, do you share Emma’s concern, as a biologist?
Guus: It’s an interesting and a new take. Her perspective on the science surprised me. This is a matter of ethical questions as much as scientific ones.
Q: Emma, what was the first question you asked Guus? What is it you wanted to learn from him as a microbiologist?
Emma: I wanted to learn a lot of things! Together we did three experiments based on some essential questions we both had. The first experiment tested whether or not we could destroy the DNA of the bacteria in a fecal sample using common household cleaning products, making the donor unidentifiable. The second experiment focussed on tracing and tracking the changes in a person’s microbiome over time based on the different environments they were around. In the third experiment we worked to anonymize an individual’s skin microbiome by adding additional traces of DNA that could be applied directly to the skin, creating a kind of biological “noise.”
Q: Guus, what did you learn from (working with) Emma?
Guus: Emma and I created a new DNA product. It represents a composition of bacteria that has probably never existed before and looks like a new ecosystem of microorganisms. She collected samples from different bacteria-rich items like animal feces from a zoo, cheeses and other fermented foods, different soils, etc. After mixing these items together, we extracted and amplified the DNA, creating a synthetic solution to be applied to the skin to obscure your own traces of bacteria.
There are companies that make DNA sprays to prevent theft and deter shoplifters. These DNA sprays contain a unique code, so when a shoplifter is sprayed, if that person can be visually identified later, a sample from their skin can be taken and analyzed. If the DNA code of that shop is found in the sample, that person can be proven guilty. We contacted one of these companies that produces DNA spray to see if you need a license to do this kind of thing. Turns out you don’t. DNA sprays are not a health risk at all. We were able to create our own DNA solutions that, when sequenced, would appear to be a strange ecosystem of bacteria.
Q: What product do you prefer?
Guus: I prefer the mist. The water in the mist is very, very densely packed with DNA, yet it comes out in such a light mist and requires little water.
Q: Emma, Where did you get the dirty stuff?
Emma: I collected samples from all over! Fecal samples contain a dense and varied composition of bacteria so Guus suggested I go to a zoo. When I got there I suddenly realized how much animal poop you see when visiting the zoo. There are traces of feces everywhere. All over your shoes! So it wasn’t difficult to take some back to add to our blender mix. Strangely, the french cheese I collected smelled much worse than the feces. When all the items were combined in the blender, the mix was disgusting!
Q: Emma, what did you learn from working with Guus?
Emma: In addition to learning a lot about the human microbiome, I also learned that science is very slow. Artist and designers do a lot of rapid prototyping. We can quickly try out ideas and make changes if they fail. In the lab, everything moves at a different pace. It takes patience and precision, which I admire.
Q: Guus: How is working with an artist?
Guus: Cool! We created something really new that maybe wouldn’t have happened in a typical lab environment.
Q: Guus, you are very enthusiastic about Emma and the MSA project, how did your colleagues react to this collaboration? Do they share your enthusiasm?
Guus: They look from the sideline and have their own thoughts. The project was insightful in terms of communication. Scientist can learn form artists about the way they communicate. These collaborations are not just PR for science, the cooperation is beneficial for both sides.