Puzzling together plant evolution through art, and vice versa

3 December 2018

When he’s not in the lab, chances are you’ll find Ive De Smet in a museum. The VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology group leader has found a peculiar link between his research work and art and turned it into a unique hobby.

It has to do with biology, but also with art… I’m confused. What exactly does your hobby entail?
Ive: “In short: I study old paintings, drawings, and other art pieces that depict plants, flowers, crops, vegetables and fruits and try to link those with biological information. By looking at the way artists presented these species many centuries ago, I hope to gain insights into their biology and how they’ve evolved over time. At the same time, I try to correlate what is depicted with what we already know about the molecular evolutions of certain species.”

I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before. How did you come up with the idea?
“It all happened when my childhood friend David Vergauwen and I were visiting Saint-Petersburg. He’s an art historian working for Amarant, a Ghentbased art organization. We were in a museum when he spotted some paintings with odd fruits and vegetables. We wondered: was this just bad painting, or did the species actually look that way at the time the painting was made? After a few beers in the local pub, we started fantasizing: how amazing would it be to blend my knowledge of molecular plant biology with his art history expertise? Now, three years later, our kooky idea has turned into an actual hobby.”

It definitely seems like a fun pastime, but are your insights scientifically relevant at all?
“In the past few years, we’ve looked deeper into two species: carrots and wheat. By combining our knowledge, we’ve learned a lot about the domestication of these species. A summary of the results of our studies are even published in Trends in Plant Science and Current Biology. So yes, we do more than just stare at paintings – we actually gather enough material to be able to draw scientific conclusions.

“In our study on carrots, for example, we were able to connect color differences through the centuries by looking at the molecular components of carotenoid and anthocyanin accumulation in the plants. And in the wheat study, we looked at the length of the crops. Did you ever notice that in really old paintings, wheat is much taller than it is nowadays? By connecting this oddity to genetic changes, we unlocked the mystery of the height variation in art through time.”

How does your art project relate to what you do at VIB?
“My group focuses on molecular changes in plants under stress, which impacts their growth and thus their yield. More specifically, we study the proteins that play a role in signaling associated with low or high temperature. If you think about it, that’s very similar to what David and I do: trying to match the phenotype – shape, size, color – of a plant to its genotype.”

What do you like most about your hobby?
“Our project helps bring science closer to the general public – something we always aim for at VIB as well.
Through art, we put biodiversity and molecular science in the spotlight in a visually attractive way. And it works: we recently received a lot of attention on radio and TV. Apparently, people are genuinely interested in the reason some fruits look strange in paintings and are intrigued by the variety of vegetables in the supermarket. Our project tries to explain all those things.

“And, of course, it’s a fun new way to look at paintings, which hasn’t been done before. It gives our trips together that extra twist and stimulates David and I to go traveling more often – without our partners (laughs).”

What does the future look like for your fascinating project? Do you and David have any big plans?
“Our goal is to create a book and a class at art organization Amarant, where David works, by the spring of 2019. We’ve already laid the groundwork with our studies on carrot, wheat, melon, watermelon, cucumber, potato and strawberry. And we are starting to look into wild cabbagederived vegetables, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. But to take our project to the next level, we need the help of other enthusiasts.
After all, we can’t possibly visit every single museum.“

“That’s why we launched a crowdsourcing campaign. Everyone is very welcome to send us their photos
of artwork containing cereal crops, fruits or vegetables. They might be of value for our research.For now, the campaign focuses on Flanders and the Netherlands, but we’re definitely planning to take it worldwide!”

Vergauwen, De Smet et al., Current Biology 2017
Vergauwen, De Smet et al., Trends in Plant Science 2016

Did you stumble upon a painting with an apple, radish, carrot or any other plant or fruit?
All you need to do is take three pictures, one each of:
• the info plate next to the painting: painter, name and date of the work
• the complete painting
• a detail of the plant, fruit or vegetable

Send all three photos to ArtGeneticsDavidIve*Replace*With*At*Sign*gmail.com and they’ll do the rest!

Ive De Smet (VIB-UGent) en David Vergauwen (Amarant)  © Liesbeth Everaert, 2017​