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Using a thin needle coupled to a heat generator, Marta de Menezes has created butterflies with wing patterns never before seen in nature. While the butterflies were still in their cocoons, the Portuguese artist used the needle to alter their development slightly and change the patterns on their wings.

Marta de Menezes. “Nature?” Live Heliconius melpomene butterfly with modified wing pattern, 2000.

As some species of butterflies develop, there are a few hours during which it is possible to trigger changes in wing patterns through a technique called microcautery. One can delete or create “eyespots” on wings, and the outcomes can generally be controlled. The changes do not occur at the genetic level and are not passed on to offspring.

For a project the artist calls Nature?, de Menezes altered one wing per butterfly, allowing the second wing to develop normally. Except for the wing patterns, the modified insects were indistinguishable from their normal counterparts. “They have the same life span and behavior, including mating behavior,” says de Menezes, who is now at the Imperial College in London.

The butterflies were first shown in 2000 at Ars Electronica, and they are now at the artist’s home, preserved and dried.

Marta de Menezes. “Nature?” Live Bicyclus anynana butterfly with modified wing pattern, 2000.

The idea for the project came from an article about scientists who modified the wing patterns of butterflies to explore biological questions. She contacted the lead researcher, Paul M. Brakefield at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, and ended up spending time at his laboratory, working alongside scientists.

“I found it amazing that those butterflies’ wing patterns had been modified by scientists, and yet were exclusively made of normal cells, creating a tension between the natural and the artificial,” says de Menezes.

Today, biotechnology is her medium of artistic expression. De Menezes is using DNA microarrays, also known as gene chips, to create art about genetic differences between individuals. “I want to make a visual statement about how similar we all are, in spite of the differences we recognize,” says the artist.

Marta de Menezes. “Nature?” Live Heliconius butterfly with modified wing pattern, 2000.

To see more works by de Menezes, visit the artist’s Web site or click here.

All images courtesy Marta de Menezes.

— Birgit Reinert

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