The science of autophagy translated through art, music, dance

Michigan News

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Red spike heels punctuate the floor in unison as four “harpies” in vibrant shades of pink, yellow, blue and orange encircle the intended victim, the alien invader. Their sharp steps keep pace with driving music that sets a tone for the devouring that is about to begin.

A kaleidoscope of colors, abstract images and geometric patterns projected from on high down to a stage-within-a-stage define the boundaries of this choreographed conflict. The music becomes turbulent, dissonant as digestion begins.

The artistic work, not unlike many produced and performed at the University of Michigan, tells a story, complete with the classic elements of plot, character, conflict, theme and setting. In this depiction the characters are the elements of a cell and the setting is the human body. The plot involves a process called autophagy, and the theme addresses this complex function that the body goes through 365 days a year as each cell seeks to renew itself. Conflict comes when the process does not work as expected.

“Autophagy is a process in which our cells break down parts of themselves and then reuse those resulting macromolecules to keep essential processes going,” said Dan Klionsky, Arthur G. Ruthven Professor of Life Sciences, at the Life Sciences Institute. The definition of autophagy is self-eating, he said, explaining how the cell disposes of that which no longer is needed while recycling essential parts worth keeping. The process, which scientists have come to better understand in the last decade, is very intricate and essential, but also can go wrong.

“Defects in autophagy can contribute to cancer, some types of neurodegeneration, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, various muscle diseases, you name it,” he said. “Almost every month, there’s a new connection being discovered between autophagy and some aspect of human health and disease.”

Autophagy still 6

The first collaboration

The unique artistic collaboration among a cell biologist, composer, choreographer and scientific illustrator was the brainchild of Klionsky, who for a number of years has sought ways to make science accessible to his students and the many “lay” audiences he addresses. His first collaborations were on illustrations of complex biological processes.

“Dan contacted me about 10 years ago now and wanted to do a painting of autophagy. I don’t remember this but he told me that, at that time, I told him that there wasn’t enough information to do the painting. But he kept at me and then eventually we made plans to do the first illustration. And it’s been ongoing since then,” said David Goodsell, illustrator from The Scripps Research Institute. “It seems like each time he gets a new scientific discovery he comes asking for a new painting.”

Fast forward to the pair’s fourth collaboration, and Goodsell’s drawings that form a cell-shaped backdrop for dancers represent an interpretation of things seen through the most powerful microscopes and the best information available to fill in the blanks.

“We take the data and cast it with an interpretive, visual feel of what it would look like if we could see it,” Goodsell said.

Adding sound

Eventually, adding illustration was not enough for Klionsky, who, along with others experimented with simple-toned DNA music. This led him to ponder what more sophisticated compositions could do to increase understanding. He approached U-M alumna Wendy Wan-Ki Lee, a faculty member at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, about setting autophagy to music.

“I was a little bit scared at that time because I didn’t know anything about science, or autophagy in particular, and I had no clue as to what kind of music he would expect from me,” said Lee, who earned a master’s and doctorate from U-M in music composition and theory. “But I was also very excited in many ways because that means that I can do a lot of crazy things with my music in terms of structure or instrumentation and so on.”

Their first collaboration was a solo piano piece she called macromusophagy.

“Anytime I’m working with someone who doesn’t know the field well, in particular an artist, they ask questions that typically make me look at the whole project, the whole aspect of autophagy in a slightly different way,” Klionsky said. “For example, Wendy asked me about the speed of certain parts of the process, which I had not thought about, but she needed to know with regard to the tempo of the music.”

That first interpretation became a centerpiece for the larger collaboration.

“I thought about the entire process; how I can put that to music in more emotional terms,” Lee said.

She started with what she considered the climax, the digestion part, using clusters of notes her collaborators referred to as “rhythmic turbulence.” Then she focused on the point at which the cell experiences nutritional scarcity, right before it begins to eat itself. “I thought how would a person respond to this, and I came up with a section of unresolved harmonies,” Lee said.

Membrane formation was depicted with notes in both hands that increased in speed and frequency, and eventually created a semi-circular effect to signal complete engulfment. Fusion became unison octaves, moving in the same direction.

Convinced there were more ways to tell the story, Klionsky took his next step.

“We’ve done paintings. We’ve done the music. I want to do dance,” he said.

Translation through movement

Colleagues introduced Klionsky to Peter Sparling, Thurnau Professor of Dance at U-M, who is no stranger to collaborations with scientists.  Sparling not only served as the choreographer but as a production manager. He is a screendance artist who combines video imagery with live performance, choreographing and editing together complex productions for dance performances, festivals and museum exhibitions.

“So, call me the ring master,” Sparling said. “I choreograph the movement for the dancers. I choose the images—the visuals. I choose the music. I decide the scenario. I put the visual images and the music and the dance together so that it all fits together.”

When Sparling and Klionsky first got together they discussed how to use the work for education and live performance.

“And as I listened to him, he was describing the processes within the cell in terms of human or animal behaviors as if they were animated, as if they have wills of their own, and I thought, ‘aha, this is it. This is a hook,’ ” Sparling said.

“I didn’t want to create dances that were literal illustrations of something. I wanted to make a metaphor,” he said. “I wanted to interface Dave’s drawings with images of human figures: emulating, imitating, mimicking and embodying these processes in a simplistic way.”

The result was a five-scene multi-media presentation produced by Sparling that first was featured in a School of Music, Theatre & Dance event in June, and more recently has been introduced in Klionsky’s biology classes.

Lessons learned

“I think it would be most helpful in a teaching environment for non-science students or people that aren’t really well versed in science,” said Mollie Lesser, neuroscience major.

“Sometimes I thought, like, what is going on, and I thought that Professor Klionsky and Peter’s explanation of it allowed me to gain a new appreciation for something that I wouldn’t have seen beforehand, which is very interesting,” said Jonathan Markowitz, also a neuroscience major.

Klionsky said a reaction like Markowitz’ was just what he was looking for from the piece.

“What I hope (for students) is what I experienced the first time I saw the rehearsal of the dance being done,” Klionsky said. “After it was over, when we were walking back, we were discussing: ‘What did Peter mean by this part? Why were there these dancers in red high-heeled shoes,’ for example? ‘What does this mean?’ And I realized, that one advantage is, since it is not absolutely literal and not absolutely obvious what was been depicted at every step of the video, it fosters discussion.”

For instance, “what if there’s a foreign or unwanted presence in a human community,” Sparling asked during one rehearsal? “What does that presence look like?”

Enter a male outsider in black rocker shag, who finds himself surrounded by four stiletto-heeled club denizens. To a crescendo of dramatic chords struck on the piano, the women distract then exhaust him in their frenzied pursuit. He lies spent, as they pick his pockets of precious cargo: red balloons that they inflate then let fly into the darkening air.


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