2016 – SEPTEMBER: Biomembrane – Festival of the Mind 2016


A collaboration between CBMNet at The University of Sheffield and artist Florence Blanchard


Science and art are often considered to be opposites, however, both rely on observation and synthesis: taking what is seen and creating something new from it. Our society could hardly exist without either, and when the two come together, our culture is enriched, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Artists and scientists approach creativity, exploration and research in different ways and from different perspectives, but when working together they open up new ways of seeing, experiencing and interpreting the world around us.

Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields.

Festival of the Mind sees University of Sheffield academics working together with professionals from Sheffield’s cultural, creative and digital industries to bring our research to life in exciting, entertaining and innovative ways.

CBMNet, or the Crossing Biological Membranes Network, to give it its full title, is no stranger to collaboration. With a focus on industrial biotechnology, it brings together scientists in universities and industry to work on the production of sustainable fuels, chemicals and therapeutics using cells, such as bacteria.

Bacteria are often perceived as the cause of those diseases that menace human society. Contrary to this, there are many strains of bacteria that are actually crucial to mankind.

Bacteria can be used to make cleaner fuels, greener plastics, new therapeutic agents and even the deodorants of the future.  They offer the opportunity to develop a more sustainable, ‘greener’ chemicals industry through use of renewable plant-based starting materials, rather than those that are oil-based.

Festival of the Mind has given CBMNet a perfect opportunity to develop a prominent piece of artwork to raise awareness of how nature can be engineered to benefit society by giving the public a glimpse inside the hidden world of bacteria cells.

Bacteria cells are separated from the outside world by a biological membrane, in much the same way that skin protects our bodies. For a bacteria cell to operate effectively, nourishment in the form of substrates, such as sugar, must pass in through this barrier. These are then converted into products, like ethanol, for example, which can be used as a biofuel, and released via the membrane.

Originally from France and trained as a scientist, Florence Blanchard is a Sheffield-based painter, muralist and screen printer. Her work is directly inspired by her science background, making her the perfect choice for this collaboration. Depicting abstract molecular landscapes, Florence’s work questions our idea of visual perception, and the unique mural created especially for the Festival, is no exception.

Entitled  ‘Biomembrane’ the mural is the artist’s interpretation of a biological membrane as seen under an electron microscope, having undergone a procedure known as cryofracture.  This is when the sample is frozen quickly and then broken with a sharp blow to reveal its structure in fine detail – imagine breaking a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts, to reveal how these are positioned within the bar.

This vibrant and inspiring mural captures the essence of CBMNet’s work, which is to improve industrial biotechnology processes by optimising the crossing of these biological membranes to enable enhanced substrate utilisation and product yield.

For more information please see:

Festival of The Mind 2018 Brochure

Festival of the Mind 2018 Programme

Florence Blanchard’s website