E-NUMBERS System Reinvented: A Micro Food Library by Artist Sneha Solanki

Image courtesy of the artist

You’ve heard of ‘E numbers’? Probably more when you were younger when they were vilified by parents as something to avoid to curb your intake of candy. E numbers are indeed what contributed to your gummy bears being that particular shade of orange. They are codes displayed on food labels for EU approved additives which contribute to our food’s taste, look, and smell. They are what we know about, what about what we don’t know about? 

There are also hidden labourers, creating aromas, colours and nutritional additives we know and love which don’t get the same fame and recognition for their hard work and the use of which signifies changing, unexposed trends in our food system. Interdisciplinary Artist, Sneha Solanki wants to change this and ASCUS Lab has been the base for her research and discovery over the last 8 months.

Sneha has embarked on a ‘Micro Food Library’ project. In creating this, she is:

“probing habitats and systems for the largely overlooked ‘natural & ‘un-natural’ organisms in our food chain- micro-organisms..”

Sneha is working to expand on the traditional E number system, with E for ‘Engineered’ or ‘Edited’ replacing E for Europe. The visual installation library will include only biologically engineered or edited micro-organisms such as bacteria, yeasts & fungi which have been genetically altered or re-programmed through modern scientific methods to produce flavours, aromas, colours, preservatives and nutrition as food additives.

“Developed to counter or bypass the current rapid change in the climate, the decline of some species or for entirely novel purposes, these micro-organisms are new to the world.  They have not previously existed in nature in the same way. They are born in laboratories through integrating science, engineering and computing. They are entirely biological”

Glowing GFP baker’s yeast. Image courtesy of the artist
Augmented synthetic e coli with banana odour generator. Image courtesy of the artist
Bakers yeast expressing beta carotene. Image courtesy of the artist


In ASCUS Lab, with support form lab technician Jiri and using our microbiology facilities, the artist has been studying the properties of engineered microorganisms such as bakers yeast and E. coli, re-culturing, nurturing them and ‘activating’ them in the lab to glow, become orange or smell like bananas respectively. In doing so, Sneha is highlighting their engineered state.

“On the cusp of an evolutionary shift and largely responsible for the flavour and nutritional properties of all brewed, fermented, preserved and live foods & beverages, these organisms are undergoing a radical transformation- genetically reconfigured and re-programmed to ferment taste, flavours, energy and re-inserted back into our food systems.”

Sneha ‘nosing’ the Banana odour generator in ASCUS Lab


After completing her work in ASCUS Lab, the culmination of the first part of her project is exhibition, E-NUMBERS v 2.0 A food additive library on novel & engineered micro-organisms at Great Northern Museum: Hancock, Newcastle from 23rd to 27th September 2019. The exhibition includes a number of these new and unique micro-organisms, some nurtured in ASCUS Lab. Visitors can experience the results of their labour as aroma, colour, and nutritional additives.

Sneha will continue to map out her Micro Food Library, there’s more to come, watch this space.

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