WEB OF LIFE Is composed of 2 immersive sculptures. One showing an updated view of the phylogenetic tree of life and the other the double helix structure of DNA. We are invited to encounter our origins and through both lectures and play experience our place in the web of life. From the first community of unicellular organisms to the large kingdoms of plants and animals we can see how small changes in the double helix molecule accounts for the visible and invisible diversity that is all around us.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck was the first in the early 19th century to propose a theory of evolution based of the transmutation of species. This evolution functioned already as a tree of life, where a stricthierarchy lead simple lifeforms to humanity as the culmination of the evolutionary process.
Darwin also used the metaphor of the tree of life and for most of the 20th century this remained valid. However more recent discoveries show a more complex model, which changes our picture from the tree of life into a web of life.

The first element which will surprise is there is not one truck but a community of early life forms. Life did not originate only once but could actually have emerged over and over again in many different forms for hundreds of thousands of years, only becoming what we see today when everything else was wiped out it in Earth’s first ever mass extinction. This structure is 4 meters in height, which means, 1 meter equals 1 billion years of evolution. We can see how mass extinctions have influenced life’s course and see all its diversity of which only so little is visible to us.

This is a place where we can learn, organize lectures and performances but also a place for play. We don’t need to understand every detail of the structure to have an intuitive and emotional connection to it.For some it will function like a 3-dimensional diagram, for others a network of branches to climb in. Some will ask why in this great network branches are merging again after having been separated. They will hear the story of the great collaboration between cells where some live inside each other, coevolving and becoming able to produce the large amounts of energy necessary for multicellular life.

Traditionally the tree of life was always divided 3 kingdoms: Plants, Animals and Fungi. But soon it was recognized this was only a small part of a much greater “web”. The 3 Kingdoms had all similar cell structure characterized by DNA enclosed in a nucleus. They were now part of the Domain of Eukaryotes.

2 other Domains were identified: Bacteria and Archaea with each a distinct cell anatomy and a different hereditary lineage.  So why is this relevant for us? This “web” is an attempt to create an updated image of all of life. A big picture of which we are also a part.

It seems relevant also to understand we could not live without bacteria, they help us digest our food and are used for millennia in processes of fermentation of beer, cheese, bread and wine. In our daily lives we are continuously cooperating with them. More of them live inside us than there are humans on the planet. They also tell us something about an essential characteristic of life reflected also in evolution: The earliest life forms 4 billion years ago were not trying their best every day to achieve greater complexity. Instead complexity and intelligence are just one of the myriad other possibilities represented in this great tree.

A bacterium is perfectly happy to be a bacterium just like a tree is not trying its best to become something else. Since the enlightenment we have become a purpose driven society, living in the collective myth of progress where our happiness should lie in some future promise of success. In the meantime, life itself is passing us by, unnoticed. Let us recognize the beauty of the tree, in its totality, in its strangeness and endless creativity and diversity. Let us also emotionally experience how in this tree everything is interconnected and where everyone has its place.

This sculpture is also a unique chance to represent another very strange and mostly feared protagonist in the story of life: Viruses.They are not really part of the tree of life since they are not alive.

Viruses are little more than genetic material in a protein capsule.They have therefore been called “The nomadic genes” travelling freely between bacteria using the infrastructure of their host to feed move around and reproduce. They can therefore sometimes be responsible for the “leak” of genetic information from one host to another.

They could be responsible for some of the horizontal gene transfer on the tree, weaving the web ever more tightly like a fabric. On this tree they can best be represented as the “vine growing on the tree of life”. They also play a crucial role in bacteria population regulation and might prove to become our best ally in the future against bacterial infections once our excessive use of antibiotics will have rendered them immune to our treatments.

But we aren’t done yet, in this vast and fascinating subject. One protagonist is actually at the center of all the billions of other characters in our biological opera: The DNA molecule. Every living creature every branch and twist in this tree is caused by a small variation of the copy of the double helix strand made of just 5 different atoms: Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Carbon and Oxygen. The arranging of these five atoms in endless variations is the alphabet of life.

But how do you write out a human with just 5 letters? This molecule is very thin, but also unfathomably long. Just 2 nanometers in diameter, (That’s 0,000.002 mm) the double helix molecule inside each one of our 30 trillion ( cells would be 2,5 meters long and made of more than 200 billion atoms.If our DNA was not 2 nanometers but as thick as a human hair, our DNA would be 125 KM long.
This sculpture shows a little over 2 revolutions, but if we would want to represent it entirely at this scale it would stretch out to the moon, and back, 5 times over. Or 93 times the circomference of the earth.

And this written out, 30 trillion times over, inside every single cell of our body. This is how much information and intelligence we unknowingly carry with us. The information includes instructions how to extract sugar from our food, how to combine it with oxygen we take out of the air to feed the “adopted bacteria” in our cells to produce ATP, the energy that animates the body. It also contains instructions how to protect us from bacterial and viral infections. It contains instructions of how to divide itself and combine with the DNA of someone else to produce an entirely new and unique human being.

As we walk up the stairs of this structure we will hear about this story, maybe thanks to an audio guide, and learn about the billions of chemical processes that are animating the body, without our knowledge, making us breathe, walk talk and wonder about the universe around us. We will rise up, and stand in wonder at the top of the structure and descend again to return to where we came from. Like life itself which grows, develops and decays. Like life once originated 4 billion years ago and ultimately will extinguish forever from our planet.
We might learn about our ancestors and how our DNA still today contains leftover information about how to breathe under water using gills.

Whatever we might let the DNA molecule and web of life tell us, we must let them speak to us more directly. Since Darwin our society seems to have been misusing evolution and biology to justify all kinds of oppressive abusive economic and political practices.
In the light of the industrial revolution we seem to only have seen patterns of competition and to justify a society where only the “fittest” should survive. We need to come up with alternative narratives about evolution and biology. Let it inform us about where we come from and who we are. And how we are not alone but connected to everything around us.