Lisa: At Bridge8 we have always been interested in how science and art are able to meet and influence one another. But what happens when science and art meet head on with the law?
Steve Kurtz, a well known US artist specialising in bio-art, was arrested in 2004 after his wife died of natural causes at home and police visiting his house reported the lab equipment they saw (he was working on a piece on genetic modification for the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art at the time) to the FBI. Kurtz was detained on suspicion of ‘bioterrorism’. A grand jury later failed to bring any charges of bioterrorism against him, but this week the scientist who provided Kurtz with the bacteria for his artwork received a $500 fine under charges of mail fraud. The species of bacteria involved were Serratia marcescens, a gram negative bacillus that occurs naturally in the soil, water and intestines. You may have seen it in a common human habitat as a pink discolouration growing on the tiles in your bathroom! The other species was Bacillus atrophaeus, a harmless non-pathogenic soil bacteria.
After the anthrax scare in the US in 2001, it is only right that strict controls over potentially harmful biological samples occurred. After the anthrax scare, the Centre for disease control tightened strict laws on the use of select agents, defined to “have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety”. Whether making common organisms sound like they should be kept under lock and key shows that misunderstanding of the risks by law enforcement officials can have disastrous results. The story of Steve Kurtz has been made into a documentary which you can find here.