Paint by number: Understanding how color patterns arise in nature using science and art

eric-bayala universal

Erick Bayala once had a professor tell him he had a problem—he was a good artist and a good scientist, so he had to choose between them. "Well, I didn't think I had to choose," said Bayala.

"Many people have the idea that art and science are two things that will never mix," said Bayala, a graduate student in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. "A lot of the first greatest scientists were also really good artists and the reason why we still learn about their science today is because of their art back then."

While working on organisms that were unfamiliar to most people, Bayala would draw schematics to explain his research. Some of his professors suggested that he think about scientific illustration as a career possibility after graduate school.

"Some people think that scientific illustration died a long time ago because now people can just take pictures," said Bayala. "The role of a scientific illustrator is to not only draw an image of what they see, but to take the knowledge of something and convert it into an image that people can relate to."

Bayala uses scientific illustration to compile his data into representative images that can help people understand his research.

"Scientific illustrators have to know both the science and the art behind an image," said Bayala.

Butterflies are used as model organisms to understand how color patterns develop in nature.

As a scientist-artist Bayala was interested in pursuing biological questions related to color patterns of animals for his graduate work.

"Color patterns completely appealed to my artistic eye. I wanted to understand how these pieces of art in nature are formed," said Bayala.

Bayala's research in the lab of Marcus Kronforst, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, focuses on how color patterns are encoded during the development of an organism and how these complex processes are regulated.

"One thing we see a lot in nature is how animals have stripes, circles, and all of these beautiful color patterns, but we don't really know how during development they acquire all of that information to produce the pattern."

Bayala uses butterfly species as model organisms to understand how color patterns, which are important for reproduction, camouflage, and survival, are established and how they evolve. He wants to understand what happens during development that allows a particular color to be in a particular location.

"Butterflies have magnificent and diverse color patterns," said Bayala. "I want to know how in development tweaking these mechanisms of establishing the colors can allow for much of the diversity we see in the animal world."