Joe Davis

Malus ecclesia: The Oldest Eden /  Astrobiological Horticulture  /  Bombyx Chrysopoeia

Joe Davis is one of the best-known figures of bioart. With his copious ideas, persistent engagement in scientific research and characteristic, peg-legged shape, he is noticed wherever he goes. Now he is coming to Article with three of his new works: Malus ecclesia: The Oldest Eden, Astrobiological Horticulture and Bombyx Chrysopoeia.

What is knowledge? Is knowledge good or evil? How should it be used? These questions have followed humanity through millennia, and the story of the tree of knowledge and the fall of man is found within many cultures. With Malus ecclesia, Joe Davis has provided his own spin to this story. He has taken part in the genetic sequencing of the ancestor of modern apples, the wild crab apple Malus sieversii. With colleagues at Harvard University, he is now attempting to create an apple strain that contains the most used information on the English language Wikipedia. As a first instance in a series of artworks, Malus ecclesia: The Oldest Eden presents an apple tissue culture that contains a quote from the oldest known account of the tree and the serpent, the Sumerian creation myth.

With this series, they are creating a new tree of knowledge, through transcoding information considered vital by our society into DNA, and preserving this information in a real apple tree. The little tree thus raises questions about what kinds of knowledge we consider important, how we relate to information, knowledge and wisdom, and which path we should take for the future.

ASTROBIOLOGICAL HORTICULTURE: microbiological "de-extinction"
Astrobiological Horticulture explores the possibility of creating organisms that can survive in cold Martian Brines. Joe Davis and his collaborators seek to do this through reviving ancient microorganisms, up to 400 million years old. These organisms were trapped, and thus preserved, in salt crystals, and have been released and brought back to life by the work of the artist’s group. The dream of science and art is a universe full of life. Creation of the first ”flowers” for a vast garden of planets is a logical continuation of long standing aspirations to bring the whole universe to life.


Joe Davis, in collaboration with Tara Gianoulis and Mariko Kasuya at Harvard Genetics and Hideki Sezutsu at the Japanese National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan.

In Bombyx Chrysopoeia, Davis, Gianoulis, Kasuya and Sezutsu have created genetically modified silk moths (Bombyx mori). These silk moths can produce silks containing silicatein, a biomineralizing protein drawn from the marine sponge, Tethya aurantia. The sponge uses silicatein to form its silica (glass) endoskeleton from silicic acid, the most abundant form of soluble silica in seawater. In the silk moths, the gene for silicatein is fused with a gene for fibroin, the principal protein in silk. The group takes advantage of the fact that silicatein is a promiscuous protein, and will sequester other metals if there is no silica in surrounding media. The transgenic silks are first treated to remove any traces of metal and then exposed to solutions containing dissolved heavy metals. As a result, these transgenic silk fibers integrate selected metals such as gold or platinum. With their method, many other metals and metal compounds may now be integrated with silicateinized silks to produce fibers with unprecedented material properties for both art and science. These may have a number of applications. In one example, Davis foresees the possibility that genetically modified silks might be used to take up radionuclides and other reactor meltdown byproducts at nuclear accident sites like Chernobyl and Fukushima. At the same time, the notion that silk worms can be created with an ability to spin silks integrating metallic gold recalls episodes of magic and legend that reach deep into history. We rely on art to bring dreams to light and in this sense, these silk moths evoke another kind of fine fabric, one woven entirely of dreams.

All three works at the Article Biennial are produced with assistance from researcher Paul Reginato, Wyss Institute, Harvard.

Joe Davis spent most of his early life in the American Deep South. While earning his Creative Arts degree (1973) from Mt Angel College in Oregon, he pioneered sculptural methods in laser carving. In 1976, Davis signed the first launch services agreement with NASA to fly a payload for the arts on Space Shuttle and in 1980, was the first non-scientist to address Goddard Spaceflight Center’s Engineering Colloquium. In the early 1980s he was Lecturer in Architecture at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. In 1986, Davis created the first genetically-engineered work of art and organized the most powerful and lengthy radar signals ever transmitted into space. In 1989 he joined the laboratory of Alexander Rich at MIT where he is widely regarded to have founded new fields in art and biology. He attached fishing rods and miniscule fish hooks to his microscopes and developed other whimsical instruments that could resolve audio signatures from microorganisms. His “DNA programming languages” for inserting poetic texts and graphics into living organisms are cited in scientific literature. In 2010, he joined the laboratory of George Church at Harvard where he is designated “Artist Scientist”. He continues to work extensively with biology for art, with a sustained interest in space and extraterrestrial intelligence.