A short video to celebrate the International Year of Soils. A microvideo (200x magnification, DIC Microscopy) is of the protozoa in my SoilHack (the live naturally in soil but there numbers have been amplified). These would normally move in a fast and unorganised manner and would be difficult to capture on video. Here, however, I have used chemical attractants to choreograph these microscopic animalcules into gentle and organised ballet. The smaller dots are bacteria and the protozoa feed off these and leave empty trails behind them. I’m guessing that this might unique and possibly be the smallest ballet ever.
I recently BioHacked a soil sample, by providing it with large quantities of nutrients in order to selectively amply the important bacteria already present in it. These are DIC micro videos of a minute droplet (around the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence) of the hacked soil. This minute droplet contains a frenzy of bacterial activity and many kinds of purposeful movement. There are Spinners, Slow Moving Leviathans, Fast Moving Speedsters, Tumblers. Bacteria, like the ones seen here, would have been the first lifeforms on Earth to “dance”
The production and elimination of urine from the body is very important because regulates the balance of water in the body, and also rids the body of waste substances that are produced during metabolic processes. Urine can also disclose evidence of diseases, and even pregnancy. Here my own urine has been carefully brought to the point of crystallization and then imaged using Differential Interference Microscopy (100x magnification) so that it becomes a window onto my own health and internal biochemistry.
Amino acids join together to make proteins and thus are the basic building blocks of life. Here five amino acids have been carefully crystallised and then viewed with a Differential Contrast Microscope at 100x magnification. Each one seems to crystallise into its own unique signature reflecting the different properties and characteristics of each compound. There a 20 common amino acids so 15 more to go!
The Winogradsky column is a simple device for culturing environmental bacteria and is an elegant means of demonstrating their vast diversity and complex interactions. Invented in the 1880s by Sergei Winogradsky, the device comprises, a column of pond mud that has been fortified with a carbon source and a sulphur source. The column is exposed to sunlight for a period of months to years, during which aerobic/anaerobic, and sulphur gradients form. All of the bacteria in the mud column are present initially in low numbers and are thus not visible to the human eye. However, during the incubation, different types of microorganism will come to occupy distinct zones where the oxygen and sulphur gradients generate specific environmental conditions, and niches, that favour their particular growth requirements and specific activities. In these zones, particular bacteria proliferate massively to form visible and brightly coloured communities.
Winogradsky columns have been used by artists in the past, but to my knowledge only passively and without intervention. Here I intervened by differentially exposing a Winogradsky column to light. This influenced where the specific types of bacteria were able to grow, resulting an image being generated by and recorded in the vast bacterial community. 3 months exposure.
After the mask has been removed to reveal the image, and as the bacteria are exposed to uniform light once more, the figures change as they become repopulated by green photosynthetic and other bacteria. In a sense, I see this as a type of alternative photography where the emulsion is a massively complex microbial community that responds to light. The ecology is perpetual and continually changing in response to its environment so the image never becomes permanent or fixed, but even if it disappears completely its legacy is preserved in the changes and influences that it made to the ecology.
I’ve worked with the remarkable slime mould Physarum polycephalum for many years now as both an artistic medium, and also as an engaging microorganism for my many outreach activities.
In its natural environment the microbe inhabits shady, cool, moist areas, such as under decaying leaves and logs where it predates and feeds of the billions of bacteria that also reside here. If it feeds on bacteria, and indeed is exposed to them, then I reasoned that the slime mould must have some powerful bactericidal systems. With this in mind my undergraduate research project student Denford looked for antibiotic compounds in Physarum poykcephalum. He found at least one and its active against Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
The agar plate harbours confluent growth of MRSA with a well containing P. polycephalum extract in the middle. The clear zone is an MRSA inhibitory zone where the antibiotic produced by the slime mould shows bactericidal against the pathogen and prevents its growth.
The microbiological world is a vast domain of life occupied by organisms which are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Because of their diminutive size, its denizens are largely ignored, yet in terms of impact and numbers, they represent the predominate form of life on earth.
In the familiar settings of our towns and cities, the same microorganisms have established thriving and complex ecologies that are almost always overlooked, yet the very existence of these and the extent of their vigour, can act as a powerful barometer for the health of our own urban environments.
Microgeography, is an approach that explores the relationships between urban environments and their microbial and human inhabitants through walking and informed observation, and often via a variety of playful and inventive strategies. Its overriding aim is to take pedestrians off their predictable macroscopic paths and to jolt them into a new awareness of the vast, but nearly always disregarded, urban microbiological landscape. These microcosms of microbiological life reflect the health of our own cities and towns, and thus through the process of microgeography, the observer is invited to question the influence of human activity upon this urban microbiological landscape, and hopefully through this, to extrapolate the impact of our actions on to the more visible world beyond.
Below is a description of a typical microgeographical process that took place at the fabulous Bees In A Tin event on 12th June at Millennium Point in Birmingham. The 90 minute outdoor and mobile workshop comprised a short microgeographical walk, the observation of natural samples for microbes in situ using a poweful portable field microscope (200-1000x magnification) and an iPhone, and some alfresco preparation of DIY/Kitchen microbiological growth media, and related bacterial growth experiments.
The event began with a short microgeographical walk where participants were shown and guided towards a number of found and local urban microbial ecologies as detailed below.
The portable and powerful Newton Field Microcsope was also used to observe samples for signatures and examples of microbial life but infortunately this activity was curtailed by the rain. Below though are examples of its portability and use in similar environments.
After some alfresco preparation of DIY/Kitchen microbiological growth media, participants then inoculated the various growth media with found objects of their choice. The images below are of the microbes (mostly bacteria and a few moulds) that grew on the agar plates. The way that this usually invisible life emerges from the chosen objects, and the complex manner in which seems to embellish these, to me, forms a very potent reminder, of not only the ubiquity of microbiological life, but also its intimate connection with all else.
Next, and back in my microbiology laboratory I selected some of the naturally pigmented bacteria that we had isolated.
Finally, I carefully dried down the coloured bacterial colonies so that they and the agar formed a glassy state. Not only are the bacteria and their own stories now beautifully preserved, but the thin and brightly coloured films might also in future become part of unique jewellery, bacterial sequins for ball gowns, and even bacterial stained glass for novel lampshades.
The glassy bacterial films can also act as unique lenses through which the normally invisible microbial world can be directly projected into the one that we normally see as can be seen below