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From biology to art

Posted by , on 4 November 2016

At the BSDB’s  Autumn Meeting on chimeras, scientist and artist Mia Buehr exhibited some of her art inspired by developmental biology. Here, she introduces her pieces. You can keep up with her work at


I was born into a family of artists, and painting and drawing were always second nature to me. However I was also deeply interested in animals and eventually did an undergraduate degree in zoology followed by a post-graduate degree in genetics and development. When I first arrived in the UK from America, I was lucky enough to meet Anne McLaren, and then worked in her lab for some 22 years, at first in Edinburgh and later in London. When she retired I moved to the lab of Austin Smith in Edinburgh, where I stayed until he took over the directorship of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge.

Throughout my career in science I sketched as a hobby, and when I began to work less in the lab I began to draw and paint more. However it wasn’t until recently, at the suggestion of Dr Jenny Nichols, that I began to think of using themes and ideas from biology in art. Jenny arranged for some of my work to be shown at the autumn meeting of the BSDB, in Edinburgh, where it was well received, and this encouraged me to devote more time and effort to working with biological images. Here are a few of the first things that I did. They are all made with computerised machine embroidery, a technique usually used commercially for such things as embroidering logos on hats and sweatshirts. However I find that it’s also an intriguing medium to use for more interesting subjects.

I continue to interpret images from biology in drawing, painting and fabric art, and would welcome suggestions from other members of the community for suitable subjects. Biology is an intensely visual science and fascinating images, which could be so effective as subjects for art, are abundant in all fields of biological research.




A chimaera, an animal made up of cells of more than one genetic origin, is represented in this picture by the grey mouse, presumably developed from cells of white and black mouse strains. But the cells of the chimaera maintain their own genetic identity and may appear again in its progeny. In this case the young white and black mice illustrate that the cells of both white and black strains can still give rise to living animals. This shows that the grey mouse is a germline chimaera, something that all those of us who work with chimaeras would recognise as a successful result



This is simply a stylised representation of how a chimaera is formed from a combination of two (or more) different cell types: the yellow and brown mice “merge” in the form of a chimaera.


Conceptual chimaera

This somewhat allegorical version of a lab rat may not be immediately recognisable as a chimaera, but he was inspired by the idea of chimaeras. As a chimaera is made up of cells from more than one genetic origin, so this rat is made up of different patterns that come together to make a whole.



There are hundreds of different strains of mice, and the variation in coat colour and pattern between them is fascinating. Here are just a few of them: you may recognise C57/Bl6, CBA, 129, DBA, W, JF1/Mg and BALB/c



This series of images is inspired by the earliest stages in the development of the mouse embryo, from the 8-cell stage, through compaction to the morula and finally the blastocyst. They were interesting designs to create, because they’re all basically round balls of cells – that is, three-dimensional structures – and it was an intriguing challenge to use different densities of embroidery to give this three-dimensional effect. You may notice that the blastocyst has the addition of several alien cells (in red) which suggest that it’s an injection chimaera



Here are some cells as they might appear in culture. It’s true that they seem to be plant rather than animal cells, but of course botanical material has just as much visual appeal as cells from an animal. The red and blue colour scheme reflects conventional haematoxylin and eosin staining but it also makes for a cheerful and colourful image. The green cells suggests that not all cells in a culture may be identical – maybe these are cells derived from a chimaeric organism



And while we’re on the subject of cells, here are some Purkinje cells of the brain. Not only do they have a fascinating structure, but they can sometimes take on wonderful colours when tissue sections are stained for the microscope. These colours are of course not a part of the cells or their function but they’re still beautiful to look at. And I love the beautiful branching, tree-like patterns the cells make


Young chick

As a mouse embryologist I’m more familiar with the mouse than with any other animal. But other animals have also contributed hugely to understanding of genetics and embryology. One of these is the chick, a fascinating organism, and here is a young chick developing in the egg, perched on top of the yolk…



…and here it is when a little bit older



Another important research organism with which I have no practical experience is the zebrafish, but after reading some papers on zebrafish genetics it proved impossible to resist responding to the huge variety of colours and patterns produced by various crossing experiments. Here are a few of the many different colour and pattern variation of zebrafish that I’ve seen


Embryo fish

And while we’re on the subject of fish, here’s a very young, embryonic fish



As my PhD thesis was about amphibian germ cells I had to include an amphibian image in the collection somewhere. I particularly liked this piece because it shows how subtle the machine embroidery technique can be. You can’t see it from the scan, but the eggs and embryos are made up of four separate layers of thin embroidery. They look different depending on how the light hits the embroidery – sometimes you can see the embryos clearly, and sometimes they’re hardly visible at all.


Doe and fawn

Of course deer aren’t usually used as subjects in genetics and embryology (although I did once start a project about stem cells in deer antlers) But I like deer, and we have so many where I live in Aberdeenshire that I had to put one in. This is just a doe with her as-yet-unborn fawn


Structural Bird / Structural Deer.

The visual relationship between the skeleton and the soft tissues of the body is such a complicated one that I’ve never really managed to capture it in a visual image. So these are simple compromises doing no more than suggesting the importance of the skeletal structure that underlies the entire shape and form of the living animal


Independent assortment

And finally a childishly simple visual interpretation of the phenomenon of independent assortment, visualising how the alleles governing various blue and silver phenotypes might be re-distributed in the progeny of the fish. It’s far from what you could call a scientific presentation, but it’s effective as an image, and it was fun to do


All images Copyright Mia Buehr, 2016


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Categories: Images, Research, Science Art

7 thoughts on “From biology to art”

  1. Absolutely beautiful. I really liked the structural studies. The morula may be my favorite because it blends biology and traditional mandalas. You could totally sell these as patches on etsy.
    I would totally buy them.

  2. I absolutely love your artwork!
    It is incredibly inspiring to see more and more people combining science and art in such a unique and beautiful way, and I wish you all the best for your artistic journey!


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