By Rebecca Moore

Thought to be an artistic exploit or act of martyrdom, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh severed his left ear after a psychotic episode in 1888. Van Gogh’s ear has never been recovered, with legends surrounding its mysterious disappearance. Only now with the capabilities of modern technology has the ear resurfaced.

In an effort to combine art and science, artist Diemut Strebe has reconstructed Vincent van Gogh’s ear. Using genetic material from a modern descendant of van Gogh, Strebe worked with scientists to reconstruct this iconic ear. The relative, Lieuwe van Gogh, is great-grandson to Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo. Lieuwe shares a Y chromosome and one-sixteenth of van Gogh’s genome.

A 3-D printer was used to construct the model of the ear, with dissolvable sugar-polymer scaffolding serving as the base. In order to ensure the accuracy of the replica, a compilation of photographs of van Gogh were used at the beginning of the process. Once the 3-D model was constructed, the genetic material was then injected into cartilage cells and added to the 3-D model. Using a bioreactor, the cells were able to grow and fill in the model while the scaffolding dissolved, leaving a replica of van Gogh’s ear after several weeks.

Sitting in a nutrition solution, the ear is displayed as a “living art-piece” at the Center for Art and Media Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. Visitors of the exhibit are able to speak directly into the ear using a microphone. The sound is then processed by a computer and converted to simulate nerve impulses.
The ear will remain on display at the German museum as part of the Sugababe exhibit until 2015, when it will then be moved to a display in New York.

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