The iron oxidising bacterium Leptothrix discophora forms beautiful, fragile and iridescent oil-like films on the surfaces of natural waters rich in iron. Often mistaken for pollution and oil spills, these films are an entirely natural phenomenon. I decided to try my hand at growing this bacteria at home, and simply threw a handful of iron nails into a bucket of collected rain water. Just over a month later, and I have a thriving and iridescent surface community of Leptothrix discophora. I simply provided an appropriate niche, which the bacteria found an exploited. How did they find it? Were they wind blown or were they present in the rain itself?
A brief microgeographical journey, connecting micro and macrocosm.
A damp concrete wall supports a green photosynthetic ecology. Within the algal continuum there are white circular zones of inhibition where the underlying concrete has been revealed and I’m guessing that this is caused by a fungus producing a metabolite that is killing the algae. Perhaps this could be explored as a natural herbicide.
The video shows the same ecology at 1000x magnification, revealing a thriving community of algae and bacteria.
Some years ago now we visited Roger Hiorn’s work Seizure in London. The Turner Prize nominated artist had turned the inside of an old council flat into a wondrous crystal grotto using copper sulphate. A deep blue crystal had broken off the work and on the floor. Isolated from the main body of crystallization, it was noticed and pocketed by an attentive and small child (Joe my son). Apparently lifeless, I started to think that the shard retained a stilled and latent energy, and that like a biological spore, it harbored a set virus-like instructions, derived from artist’s initial vision, that would lead to the birth of a new and unique art form. At home, I nurtured the deep blue spore and carefully encouraged it to germinate and so that it grew into its own unique, yet related ecology. Primed by its inherent chemistry and potential, it is Hiorn’s “Seizure”, and an unexpected extension of it, but also it is not, having emerged into, and representing, its own unique context.
The Blue Chemical Ecosystem appears to change constantly in response to its environment, first emerging as tall and thin spikes, but later into other wonderful and unexpected forms. For example, it would appear that at the bottom the competition for space and “nutrition” is intense. In response, a new species has emerged, the surface dweller, which has evolved its own air bladders, allowing it to live on the air/liquid interface and thus toexploit this hitherto unoccupied domain.
The Pale Blue Dot, is a photograph (inspired by Carl Sagan) of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers from Earth. In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel and the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space.
The “Pale Blue Dots” in this work are my own cells, as imaged at 1000x magnification. They are the minutest divisible living part of me, and too appear as tiny dots against the relative vastness of my body. In the background are even smaller bacterial cells, and the modern understanding of these lifeforms suggests that these too are also part of me. At this extreme scale, I have difficulties imagining where I begin and end.
In 2006 artist, JoWonder and myself were awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust to make an interpretation of John Millias’s painting Ophelia. We were not the first to paint with bacteria, and in fact Alexander Fleming was one of the first to explore the use of naturally pigmented bacteria in art, by creating his “germ paintings”. Our project was though the most in depth (and still is) investigation into bacteria and colour, and along the way Jo and I developed, much accidental beauty in our test runs, and in our invention of many new procesess. These include a unique and consistent palette of living bacterial bacterial colours, ways to make glass-like films from coloured bacteria, the use of chromogens in bacterial art, and methods to encapsulate bacteria so that they might form living and coloured pixels. As a new generation of artists becomes interested in bacteria and colour, I hope that our ground-breaking work is not forgotten and that our processes can be adopted and taken up to explore this wonderful aspect of microbiology.
Tired of all those brash and energy gobbling Christmas lights, then try these unique Christmas BioBaubles. Powered by nothing more than seawater, a drop of glycerol, and the naturally bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum. Prepared for Thames Valley Branch’s Cafe Scientific event this evening.