It’s the stuff of legend: Vincent van Gogh famously sliced off his ear and sent it to a prostitute. Or his ear was lopped off in a fight with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Either way, the troubled painter lost a lobe—and it has now been regrown from living cells for an art installation in Germany.
“For me, science is like a brush Vincent used to paint,” says the artist Diemut Strebe, who enlisted a team of scientists to recreate the Dutch genius’s cartilage. To do so, DNA was extracted from Lieuwe van Gogh—the great-great-grandson of Vincent’s art-dealing brother, Theo—who shares the painter’s Y chromosome and one-sixteenth of his genome.
Although it may sound like science fiction, the technique is based on some very real, cutting-edge techniques developed by MIT’s Robert Langer and Harvard’s Joseph Vacanti to make artificial skin for burn victims and ulcer patients.
Langer, a consultant on Strebe’s project, gave us a step-by-step guide through the ear-building steps:
• Make a mold of an ear using a 3D printer. In this case, Strebe modeled the shape on photos of the painter.
• Get ahold of some cartilage cells.
• Inject the cells with DNA gathered from van Gogh’s relative.
• Add cells to the mold containing a dissolvable sugar-polymer scaffolding.
• Place the mold in a bioreactor for several weeks, during which time the scaffolding dissolves and the cells grow to create a matrix that fills in any empty space and creates strength.
• Voilà! Remove the finished ear from the mold.
Van Gogh’s regrown ear, titled Sugababe, is suspended in a clear glass case filled with a nutrient solution. Visitors can see and talk to it—a computer-rigged microphone converts sound into simulated nerve impulses—at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, through July 6.