In the context of their relative scale, these two animalcules are like whales, dwarfing the other infusoria and bacteria around them. They move with a similar grace and elegance, but for them their journeys cover fractions of a centimetre and not hundreds of kilometres.
‘So in a single drop of water the microscope discovers, what motions, what tumult, what wars, what pursuits, what stratagems, what a circle-dance of Death & Life, Death hunting Life & Life renewed and invigorated by Death … a many meaning cypher.’ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
C-MOULD has developed a unique palette of living colours, in terms of its extensive collection of naturally pigmented bacteria, and expertise in handling these. The full palette, however, contains bacteria that are pathogenic and also some that are difficult to culture, and thus its use is restricted to laboratory use.
BioChromes, is collection of living pigments (orange, pink, red/pink, white, yellow and blue) that has been specially selected for ease of growth, reliability of pigment production, and safety, and thus to have applications beyond the laboratory.
Helion is a unique and sustainable BioTextile in development a C-MOULD. Its basis is the cyanobacterium Oscillatoria animalis, and because of the photosynthetic capacity of this organism, Helion can be produced from little more than air and sunlight. Moreover, the individual filaments of the bacterium, which equate to the fibres in the textile, have a unique oscillatory motility (than can be seen in the videos) meaning that the textile weaves itself into a mat as it grows.
Bacteria exhibit an astonishing metabolic diversity, which exceeds that of all animals, plants, fungi and higher organisms. Their invisible, and often overlooked activity, sustains all of the life that we can see as bacteria contribute, on a global scale, to all of the Earth’s life-sustaining natural chemical cycles.
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.
The large quantity of the carbon source added to the column initially promotes rapid microbial growth, which consumes oxygen, and soon depletes this gas in the sediment . The only organisms that can now grow under these newly generated anaerobic conditions are those that can ferment organic matter and those that perform anaerobic respiration, and thus grow in the absence of oxygen. One type of such bacteria are the Clostridium species which start to grow when oxygen is depleted. To grow, they must breakdown the added carbon source to gain energy, and when they do this, as a by-product of metabolism, they also produce a range of simple organic compounds (e.g. ethanol, acetic acid). Subsequently, sulphur-reducing bacteria, towards the bottom of the column will then use these simple fermentation products to facilitate their own growth. In order to do this they though, they must also use the added sulphur compound which enables them to respire under anaerobic conditions. In this process sulphur reducing bacteria generate large amounts of hydrogen sulphide and some of this gas will diffuse through the column where it allows certain kinds of anaerobic photosynthetic bacteria to grow. These bacteria called green and purple sulphur bacteria gain energy from light reactions and produce their cellular materials from carbon dioxide in much the same way as plants do. However, there is one key difference, they do not generate oxygen during photosynthesis because they do not use water a reductant for this process and instead use hydrogen sulphide. Distinct and separate zones of purple and green sulphur bacteria form because green sulphur bacteria are more tolerant of hydrogen sulphide and can grow closer to the source of production as more tolerant that purples. The sulphur compounds produced this type of photosynthesis is then recycled into hydrogen sulphide again by sulphur-reducing bacteria. In other parts of the column where the concentration of hydrogen sulphide is low, another group of photosynthetic bacteria are able to grow. These are the purple-non sulphur, which are not tolerant to hydrogen sulphide but also gain their energy from light reactions and grow in zones devoid of hydrogen sulphide. Towards the top of the column, bacteria with a more familiar type of photosynthesis grown can be found. These bacteria, called cyanobacteria are the only bacteria that possess oxygen-evolving photosynthesis like that seen in plants. In fact, there is very strong evidence that chloroplasts, the organelles in plant cells which bring about photosynthesis of plants originated from cyanobacteria. Once these bacteria begin to grow, they produce oxygen via their photosynthesis and oxygenate the top of the column. Finally, any hydrogen sulphide that diffuses, from the bottom of the column, into this aerobic zone will be used by sulphide-oxidizing bacteria allowing them to grow, and to form bright orange zones.
Whilst it is a striking and visual demonstration of bacterial diversity and activity, the Winogradsky column, is also microcosm which harbours many of the vital natural processes that bacteria carry out, and which can additional be used to predict or model the effect that anthropogenic factors, such as global warming, might have on delicate sustaining ecosystems. Immortal Worlds?, is a collaborative project between artist Jac Scott and myself, with our initial investigations being funded by an A-N New Collaboration Bursary. The focus of the project is on mapping the unseen, but vitally important world of bacteria and, particularly how climate change will impact on these organisms, which underpin all of the Earth’s many diverse and living ecosystems. We aim to create innovative and collaborative studies that will not only experimentally and critically engage art and science, but will also spark debate about our rapidly changing world. Our initial explorations have been to replicate natural microbial ecosystems from important environments like salt marshes, wilderness areas, and various water courses, and then to mimic the predicted effects of global warming, like increased temperature, in the laboratory, and finally to observe the outcome. These images are from microbial ecosystems that have been established from a salt marsh in Blakeney, Norfolk. They are nearly a year old now but still continue to develop. One set of ecosystems has been incubated at temperatures that we might encounter today, and the others at a higher temperature that might be the outcome of global warming. The differences in the health and diversity of the ecologies is both striking and frightening. The low temperature systems are vibrant and dynamic, and have all of the wonderful complexity of the Windogasky column as describe above.
However, in the high temperature system this complex ecology has been dramatically disturbed, as the higher temperatures inhibit the growth of vital bacterial species. This system is far less complex, and is dominated by anaerobic and hydrogen sulphide producing life. In this dark ecology, there is no sink for the hydrogen sulphide, as it remains unused by the photosynthetic sulphur bacteria, and so it reacts with any iron in the column to form the black and noxious compound hydrogen sulphide.
For arts and science practice to be sustainable, I really think that the art needs to feedback into the science more than it does at the moment. It needs to invigorate science and push scientists out of their comfort zones. This is a little, but beautiful of example of what can happen when the two cultures are integrated into a seamless whole.
Mycorrhizal fungi have occurred naturally in the soil for at least 450 million years, forming a close symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Plants and these mycorrhizal fungi operate as a single working unit in nature in which the plant performs photosynthesis, and the fungi facilitate underground nutrition-gathering and also protect the roots. In fact, nearly all plants on earth rely on mycorrhizal fungi for nutrients and moisture, with many plants being extremely dependent on, and surviving poorly without such beneficial fungi.
I am currently working with these fungi in the lab, but I could equally well being doing this in my own kitchen, given that everything I’m using can be purchased at a supermarket. I’m exploring these organisms as an artist would and purely out of a sense of curiosity, something that is nearly impossible to do in the context of science funding in the UK at the moment. Also I wish to share the wonder of the microbiological world. One of the things, I’ve found out is that many of the fungi that compromise the mycorrhizosphere produce fluorescent pigments, that is when exposed to UV light they glow in a variety of bright and beautiful colours (see MycoChromes). I am now exploring the aesthetics of this.
The other accidental, and more important finding concerns the way that the mycorrhizal fungi interact with each other. The image of the Petri dish (View From The Top) shows mould colonies growing on agar, but it’s only when the plate is turned over and viewed from the bottom that something remarkable is revealed (View From The Bottom). The large central mould colony has encountered another mould species at the bottom of the plate, and only in the area close to the point of contact between the two species, is producing a bright red pigment. Thus, the larger mould has recognised the presence of the smaller mould and is responding by producing a coloured compound. This discovery is born more out of art than science but it may be far reaching. It shows a hitherto unknown interaction between the soil mycorrhizae, the scientific examination of which might lead to novel sensors for fungi and the identification of novel compounds powerful antifungal properties.
I found this beautuful animacule hunting and feeding in a bucket of rainwater