The Sweet Sugar Forest project came from the analogy for cell surfaces (and large biological molecules) being similar to a forest – there are glycoproteins, glycolipids and just plain sugars which form branching structure that stick out like great swaying trees. Dr. Bruce Turnbull is a sugar chemist and worked with artist Vicky Ola, performance artist Anzir Boodoo and visualisation specialist Dr. Jo Leng with the aim of developing a real-life ‘sugar forest’ that we could actually walk through. While this is still a long term goal the process of doing was not so easy – these were big structures, too big! However in this project we created a variety of ways to create molecular models of sugars that played on the ideas of what a sugar is and how they are perceived as nice and tasty treats.
Initially, the collaboration tried to use modelling balloons to form the major structure of the forest (this idea was taken from the balloon molecular models that we made at ASMbly in 2014). We planed to add details made from other materials that would make the structures look tasty. Fairly soon Vicky came up with the idea of making models of sugar molecules from cakes and sweets. These look really tasty and took off.
We considered making these “cake” molecular models for polysaccharides with a variety of biological functions. We liked the idea of modeling the sugar coating on a lethal virus out of tasty looking cakes but in the end we decide to make cellulose, a polysaccharide that is made from lots of identical sugar molecules that join to form one long straight molecule. These long molecules are held flat by interacting with other cellulose molecules to form sheets and then the sheets join to form a solid. Cellulose is the main structural component of plants including trees and their timber.
We developed an activity for ASMbly 2015 where people could make one of the sugar residues of cellulose from sweets and toothpicks. Once this was made then the condensation reaction could be modeled and the sugar added to the growing cellulose molecule which was lying on a plank of wood which is cellulose. The water molecular that was released when the sugar attached to the growing cellulose molecule was dropped into a water jug.
We still hope to make a sugar forest sometime in the future. There are hundreds of sugar molecules in the polysaccharides that coat the red blood cells and encode the ABO blood groups. We made a small number of sugar molecules out of modelling balloons and each of these were approximately 30cm across. Joining 100 of these into a non-branching structure would produce a molecule model that would be 30m long. This is quite big!
I doubt that even if all the balloon were filled with helium that we could create sugar trees that grew upwards but as the coating on cells “grow” in all directions perhaps we could hang the forest from the ceiling and approach this sugar forest as a visiting molecule or virus would. This would be a slightly eerie, upside-down forest (hopefully with a sympathetic soundscape).