Science

RUG shines at Noorderzon

The RUG is talking about evolution at Noorderzon, organising a city safari in the Noorderplantsoen, erecting a DNA tower at the playground, and giving a performance in a container. All thanks to biologists’ conference, ESEB.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Blue algae are practically perfect. They have been around for 3.5 billion years. We humans may arrogantly call ourselves amazing creatures, but we’re nothing compared to blue algae. ‘In all those billions of years, they’ve barely had to evolve. They can eat, procreate, and keep the species alive without having to adapt.’

Christophe Brochard, one of the founders of the Groningen ecological consultancy agency Biota, is a big fan of the organism. This week, he will be leading people on ‘city safaris’ at Noorderzon for Evolve, a project under ScienceLinX. The safari will cover evolution.

Tardigrade

Standing next to a lichen-covered tree, Van Wijngaarden is clearly enthusiastic about many things. One of these is the tardigrade – a tiny little animal, invisible to the naked eye. It can be found in the ice at Spitsbergen, but also in the hot sands of the Sahara. ‘It can cut out damaged DNA and replace it. It can live in space without being affected by radiation. You can send it Mars, and it will survive.’

Elsewhere: ants! Another great species. Whenever they find food, they emit a scent to signal this. ‘That’s a really complex language! Did you know that ants could fill fifty dictionaries with their scent language?’

The city safari is just one of the ways ScienceLinX is introducing the theme of ‘evolution’ during this edition of Noorderzon. Thanks to ESEB, the scientific conference that has lured 1,500 biologists from all over the world to Groningen. ‘They have an outreach budget. That’s what made all this possible’, says Renske de Jonge, who works at ScienceLinX.

Two thousand blocks

DNA tower

Leen van Wijngaarden designed the blocks that kids use to build a new DNA tower every day. The thought behind it is simple: one little block can form the basis for the weirdest shapes.

While the grown-ups follow the biologist into the park, parents and children are building a DNA tower. ‘These two thousand building blocks were designed just for us’, says Renske de Jong. ‘We run out in no time.’

In one of the containers, children extract DNA from a strawberry, using nothing other than dishwashing liquid (‘to break down cell walls’), salt (‘to separate protein and DNA’), and a tissue (‘to separate water and DNA’). The wobbly substance you end up with is DNA, says Richel Bilderbeek, the theoretical biology PhD student who supervises the workshops.

Extinct

And then there is the specially designed evolutionary game ‘Evolve’, in which players, wearing differently coloured glasses, have to take as many chips from a table whose surface keeps changing colour. Red, for example, means there is a forest fire. ‘That puts people wearing blue glasses at a disadvantage, because there are chips they can’t see as well as others.’

One child is disappointed to only have grabbed three chips. ‘Too bad’, says co-creator Alwin Buist. ‘The blue birds are extinct. But… red had a baby chick.’

The workshops are extremely popular, De Jonge is satisfied to note. ‘People are lining up. And at night, we have the very amusing theatre show Balts and serious lectures by several scientists.’

And yet ScienceLinX came very close to not being at Noorderzon at all. While other universities regularly put in appearances at festivals such as Lowlands or Into the Great Wide Open, RUG only did this one.

Lowlands

‘We did go to Lowlands’, says De Jonge. ‘And we have our own Night of Arts and Science. And besides, we are at the World Port Days, and Eurosonic. But the RUG has no central policy when it comes to this kind of thing. And organising these things isn’t cheap. Noorderzon easily costs 30,000 euros, not even including staff.’

What would she like to do next time? She definitely wants to continue the collaboration with Noorderzon. ‘And I really love crossovers with existing experiments. Balts, the theatre show, for example, is independent of the workshop and the safari. But it would be great to connect everything: incorporate the experiment into the show and interact with the audience.’

Want to visit the Evolve pavilion? That’s possible until friday. Check the program on the website of Noorderzon.

Nederlands

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