To make the green pigment chlorophyll, many complex chemical reactions must occur, accelerated and protected by enzymes. The colourful molecules produced during this process are toxic and must be shuttled safely from one enzyme to the next to prevent damage to the cell. To ensure the fast progression of all these steps, the enzymes are physically located near to each other at a something called a membrane, a surface and barrier within a cell.
While research involves a world of data, equations and graphs, often scientists have a virtual or cartoon representation of their work in their mind‘s eye. Science involves a lot of imagination, but ideas are communicated in text; scientists write essays which discuss their experimental results and theories. METABOLON is research as contemporary art. While Seiko has used experimental results as a starting vision, using her intricate craft skills she has created a unique aesthetic to produce an artistic interpretation of the chlorophyll biosynthesis pathway. Seiko has taken inspiration from the ‘standard’ membrane model, taught in biology textbooks, but has also rotated it 90 degrees so that you may explore the work at a more intimate level.
Science is a physically demanding practise, requiring meticulous repetitive experiments to build a complete story. Seiko mimics this in her artistic practise. Particularly using traditional hand craft skills, here folding over 6000 pieces of paper 84,000 times over a three months period. She hopes by visualising this repetitive process, people can feel the effort going into the experimental process required by science. The steel sculptures are inspired by the intricate three dimensional structures of the proteins, and hand welded by sculptor Darren Richardson.
Enzymes are able to perform chemical reactions at room temperature and in an environment filled with water. Many equivalent reactions performed in a laboratory by scientists need lots of energy - needing high temperatures, pressures and toxic solvents.
One way that enzymes are able to skirt the high energy requirements found in the lab is by providing the perfect three dimensional environment, positioning all the components of a reaction in the optimal physical space. Then it only requires a small amount of energy to push a reaction over to completion. In addition, enzymes provide protection to the newly formed molecules to prevent unwanted and potentially dangerous side reactions occurring.
The pigments created in the sequence of reactions leading to chlorophyll absorb lots of light energy. Energy is never lost, it is just converted into other forms, such as heat, which within a cell can be very dangerous. To help prevent the newly formed pigments from causing damage, they are held within the protecting embrace of enzymes and proteins, which have systems in place to absorb and safely disperse destructive energy.
Aegis depicts this protecting embrace. Seiko found this protective natural structure reminiscent of a baby in its mother’s womb, and has reflected this delicate quality into this work. The helical structures of the enzyme encase the porphyrin molecule (seen right), producing the environment that assists the reaction and protects the cell from damage.
The helical structures are made with paper yarn which is hand dyed and woven on a traditional hundred year old Dobby Loom. The steel porphyrin pigment is protoporphyrin IX. Here it is about to receive an ion of magnesium in it’s very centre, this is the first step of seven chemical reactions assisted by enzymes which ultimately leads to chlorophyll.
How small is small? The chemical reactions of life occur at the nanometre scale (10^-9 metres). METABOLON and Aegis explore the invisible nano-world that exists within the cells of a leaf from a plant. The sculptures you see are around 50 million times bigger than real life.
The molecule of chlorophyll shown here measures 2 nanometres across, or 0.000,000,002 metres.