The Bioluminescent Night Light: biological temazepan

Blue light has a supposed soothing and calming effect. I’ve suffered from moderate insomnia for many years so I decided to find out whether the ethereal blue light emitted by marine bioluminescent bacteria would help me with my problem. Consequently,  I made a bioluminescent Night Light and slept under its influence for 4 days. I have to say that the light is wonderfully comforting, a beguiling faint blue constant throughout the night. In Nature, this form of light is often employed by predators as a lure, and like temazepan, I find that it has unique hypnotic and soporific propeties. Under the light’s infleunce, I sleep like a baby and dream of the sea.

BioPortraits: My sons, Joe and Josh

A few years ago I had an excellent collaboration with an artist called Anne Brodie in which developed the world’s most unusual photobooth. Using the booth we took portraits of people using only the ephemeral blue-green light produced by bioluminescent bacteria (100s of agar plates and 10 litres of culture). Unlike sunlight or artificial light, bacterial bioluminescence is of a pure and refined quality (a single wavelength of ~475 nm), a property that endows it with unique revelatory properties. When a human body is imaged with bacterial light, it does more than illuminate; the light is of a type that penetrates adornments, glamour, and the inconsequential surface features of the face revealing far more about the individual behind it than does the unrefined cocktail of light wavelengths that is sunlight. An example of its properties can be seen in these unique portraits of my children. Joe is usually sensible and quite studious, whilst Josh is constant blur of motion and activity.

Biogenic Designs: white nascence

This is an example from a series of works featuring purely biogenic designs, which explore the inherent creativity and properties of microorganisms. This white design on black cotton is entirely natural, and is made from billions of normally invisible microbiological spores.  In their present context, the spores are dormant, but still potent with unrealised microbiological life. If, however, the design is provided with water and nutrition, then the spores will germinate and it will then become animated with an intricate three dimensional matrix of microbial growth. No longer nascent, the design will only then have realised its full potential.

Bioglyph: visualizing the urban cryptobiotic crust.

Over a period of many years an abandoned table has become covered in a dark patina of microbial growth. It might not look alive, but were we able to observe this thin layer  with a microscope we would find an exotic and miniature forest inhabited by fungi, green algae and cyanobacteria. I call this ubiquitous but overlooked microbiological veneer, the Urban Cryptobiotic Crust (UCC). Here a snail, a leviathan on the scale of the UCC, has fed on this ecology, and in removing it and revealing the sterile manmade substratum beneath, has highlighted the table’s microbiology and etched a telling metric into the extended surface of the table.

Extended Domestica

These were inspired by a visit to a natural history museum, where I saw illuminated jars of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. I decided to invert this concept, and to take apparently inanimate and mundane domestic items and embed them into to nutritious bacteriological growth medium so that their invisible microflora would flourish, and so that is some sense they would be given, or returned to life. The process is the very antithesis of the act preservation. A collaboration with Anna Dumitriu.

Sustainable Denim: microbial indigo

Indigo, the dye used to stain jeans blue, was traditionally extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera. Today, however, the several thousand tons of indigo used  each year is synthetic and produced by industrial processes with obvious consequences for the environment. This is a project which seeks to develop a sustainable form of indigo using the bacterium Vogesella indigofera. This rare blue naturally pigmented bacterium was originally isolated from a pond that had been used as a dump for highly toxic chemical waste and I find it intriguing that something so beautiful could arise from such a polluted environment.




Bioluminescent bacteria responding to the image of a very famous scientist who made major contributions to medicine. Who is he though?

Future Seas: the influence of pH on the viability of model sea microcosms

Ocean acidification results from the burning of fossil fuels, as the additional  atmospheric burden  carbon dioxide generated by this, forces more of this gas into our seas making  them more acidic. This change in sea chemistry is likely to have a dramatic impact upon the health of our oceans and scientists have discovered that already the shells of marine snails in seas around Antarctica are being corroded by this process. Whilst, these observations are deeply unsettling,  it is the life forms that we can’t see, and how we influence their activities, that are the pivotal factors that will govern the health of our seas and that will shape their life supporting chemistry.  Our planets oceans teem with invisible microbial life such that a single millilitre of seawater, in a genetic and microbial sense, has more complexity than the human genome.  To highlight these important but often overlooked players in climate change,  I’m developing a number of novel process which reveal these normally invisible life forms, and their impact,  in an aesthetic manner. Here I have established a number of microcosms derived from seawater and varied the pH (the levels of acidity and alkalinity) to reflect and model ocean acidification. We will find our future in one of these microcosms, some have flourished, others have struggled, and some are lifeless.

The Djinn in The Lamp


The Djinn in The Lamp. Well not quite!  A gravy boat filled with a culture of bioluminscent bacteria. The blue aurora of light is a consequence of the bacteria responding to fluctuating concentrations of elemental oxygen. See Element 8 posts below for further details.

The Exemplary Life of Soil: visualising the Cryptosphere II

The Exemplary Life of Soil: visualising the Cryptosphere II:  In his painting, “The Exemplary Life of Soil” Jean Dubuffet sought to give an impression of “teeming matter, alive and sparkling”, which he could use to represent soil. His portrayal, was the inspiration for this work in which I sought to reveal his “teaming matter” in the sense that soil harbours massive populations of minute but intensely active animals.  Called the Cryptozoa these small animal-like organisms play essential roles in soil, as decomposers, and also as vital food sources larger organisms. Despite this, the world that these organisms inhabit, the Cryptosphere, is often overlooked because of its inhabitant’s small size.  The works here are all derived from a novel process that I developed to allow us to retrospectively witness the activity of these minute life forms.

Bioluminescent bacteria (naturally light producing bacteria) were inoculated onto the surface of a device containing agar which was then implanted into soil so that cryptozoa could walk over its surface. As they did this they inadvertently collected the bioluminescent bacteria on their feet (or other bodily parts depending on their means of locomotion), and as they continued on their journey, and walked over the uninoculated agar surface, they left behind a trail of the bacteria in their footsteps. Because of the microscopic nature of the footprints, and the small initial numbers of bacteria, these tracks were at first invisible. However, after a day or so the bacteria grow into visible points of light that reveal the otherwise invisible tracks of activity.  In a sense, the growth of the bacteria, and their production of light, acts as an amplification process to reveal what is normally invisible. This process also gives an excellent visual assessment of biodiversity as the patterns formed from intensively farmed soils are far less complex than those from old woodlands.