In 2015, Boeke’s team described a strategy for building biosynthetic pathways in yeast called VEGAS (Versatile Genetic Assembly System). The approach enables scientists to produce valuable compounds in yeast, which is a significantly more adaptable organism for this purpose compared to conventional sources of these molecules. To demonstrate the concept, the team generated yeast strains that synthesized the plant pigment beta-carotene at various levels, resulting in a range of colors from white to orange. They also engineered strains to produce the bacterial pigment violacein, yielding deep purple, nearly black yeast, and expanded their assortment with a blue pigment from a sea anemone, a pale purple dye from coral, and red fluorescent protein. According to Jasmine Temple, the bio-artist behind many of the images created by the lab, the current color palette comprises 11 shades: dark purple (black), white, gray, deep orange, light orange, deep yellow, light yellow, red, pink, purple, and blue.
Boeke’s group has employed this method, which they’ve named ‘biopointillism,’ to craft pictures using Saccharomyces yeast. These images feature figures like Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Obama, a Campbell’s soup can, Picasso’s “A girl before a mirror’’ and others.
Yeast-laden “paintings” can be customized as well. Notably, one of their creations, depicting the New York City skyline at sunset, secured victory in the 2016 BioArt competition organized by Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Images used in this feature were created at Boeke Lab by Aleksandra Wudzinska and Jasmine Temple. More yeast-based images can be found at yeastart.org