Cite this article

NIDA. (2013, December 24). BioArt: Where Art and Science Intersect. Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
December 24 2013
A collage of biological art

Have you ever looked at something through a microscope and thought, “That’s really pretty”?

“BioArt” is the practice of using techniques and materials from science research to make art. Bio-artists use live tissues, bacteria, living organisms, and life processes to create a blend of science, technology, art, and design.

Recently, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology recognized 9 scientists for BioArt images and videos that came from their work in medicine or research. Three of the winning images were submitted by NIDA-funded researchers:

  • Paul W. Czoty, Ph.D., and collaborators John Olson and Michelle Bell at Wake Forest University School of Medicine
  • William Lewis, M.D., at Emory University School of Medicine
  • Saleem Nicola, Ph.D., James Kim, Ph.D. and Sylvie Lardeux, Ph.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Vincent McGinty, Ph.D., of Stanford University

Looking at the Cocaine Brain

The Wake Forest team’s entry comes from drug abuse research. The image is a brain scan that shows a female monkey’s brain affected by cocaine abuse. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a computer program that colors brain fibers based on the many directions that water moves in the brain. 

“The real brain, of course, is not those colors, but in coloring neurons differently according to their orientation in the brain, we get this beautiful image,” says Dr. Czoty.

He adds, “One of the things that impresses us and gives that awestruck feeling when looking at great art is the appreciation of the way the artist put everything together to come up with the final product.  Much of nature is organized based on biological, chemical, and physical principles, and the results seem even more amazing oftentimes because they seem to have occurred on their own.”

Diagnosing Heart Disease in Living Color

Dr. Lewis’ entry is a picture of microscopic cell tissue from a human heart.

“Beautiful colors help us diagnose diseases,” explains Dr. Lewis. Different colors mean different things—unfortunately, the winning image shows an unhealthy heart.

Pictures like these tell doctors if a patient is healthy or not, but they also add another dimension to the science. Science—and medicine—is about more than neurons and cell tissue. It’s about stepping back and looking at things from a different perspective to solve problems. 

“There is a curious and intangible intersection between art and science, depending on how you look at it. I experiment with photography to capture another way of seeing,” he says.

Showing How Sugar-Seeking Rats Behave

Dr. Nicola’s team explored how rats’ brains reacted when the rats heard a noise and were rewarded with sugar water.

Dr. Nicola says, “We asked, how does the brain, after perceiving the tone, decide it’s worthwhile to go to the lever, and how does the brain get the rat there?” NIDA is interested in this type of research because people who are addicted to drugs have a hard time resisting emotions and situations that will put them in contact with drugs.

“One thing I like about our winning image is that it’s really nothing more than a series of curved lines plotted on a graph. To make it something resembling art, I picked a series of lines that looks kind of like a spider with a lot of legs; I made the lines wide; I added the colors (and then smoothed them so they run evenly into one another), and I used a black background. These tweaks make the image striking and give it a 3-D quality.”

You Don’t Need a Microscope To Observe Art in Nature

The beauty of biology and science is all around us. What do the color variations in the Grand Canyon teach us about the age and composition of the canyon? What do you see when looking at a grain of sand, a butterfly wing, or the color of autumn leaves?

How might you turn science into art? Use your smartphone or iPod to snap photos of the world around you and send them to