Sixty Days of Goodbye Poems of Ophelia: investigations with bacteria and colour

Pigmented bacteria converted into a glass-like film for projection and stained-glass.

Pigmented bacteria converted into a glass-like film for projection and stained-glass.

The first use of a chromogen in bacterial art

The first use of a chromogen in bacterial art

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

Bacterial pointillism

Bacterial pointillism

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

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Serratia marcescens and Bacillus mycoides. An antagonistic red, paint

Serratia marcescens and Bacillus mycoides. An antagonistic red, paint

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

Droplets of Bacillus mycoides, with outgrowth.

Droplets of Bacillus mycoides, with outgrowth.

An early Ophelia

An early Ophelia

Bacterial pointillism, Ophelia

Bacterial pointillism, Ophelia

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Various

Various

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels. Also we developed a mirror-like black agar.

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels. Also we developed a mirror-like black agar.

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The living palette of pigmented bacteria

The living palette of pigmented bacteria

An early bacterial Ophelia

An early bacterial Ophelia

Pigmented bacteria converted into a glass-like film for projection and stained-glass.

Pigmented bacteria converted into a glass-like film for projection and stained-glass.

An early bacterial Ophelia

An early bacterial Ophelia

An early bacterial Ophelia

An early bacterial Ophelia

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

Bacterial pointillism

Bacterial pointillism

A very old and dying bacterial Ophelia.

A very old and dying bacterial Ophelia.

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

Bacillus mycoides and food colours

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

The use of encapsulated bacteria to generate living colours/living pixels

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.

BioBaubles

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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.

The Dance of The Pathogen

More than 70% of fresh chickens for sale in the UK are contaminated with Campylobacter, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revealed. This bacterium is the most frequent cause of food poisoning in the UK, responsible for 280,000 cases a year, and around 100 deaths. Fresh from a chicken carcass, this is what is looks like at 1000x magnification. Such malevolent Industry!

BioGlitches: art generated by an error-prone code

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“The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” Lewis Thomas

Two tricksy genetic switches control red pigment production or bioluminescence in two different species of bacteria here. The switches rapidly flick on (red pigment production or bioluminescence) or off (no pigment/no light production) and thus generate white or dark regions, respectively. Consequently, the images directly reflect minute changes in the genetic code of the respective bacteria.

In watching the bacteria grow, and in facilitating their divergence into genetically distinct forms, I feel connected to the dynamic creative energies that reside already in biology, and to the multitude of DNA strands that are thread through all of the many trillions of living cells on earth.

Blue Microbial Ghosts

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Methylene Blue can be employed as a viability indicator to determine whether cells are alive or dead. Because of its size and positive charge, it does not enter into viable cells and gets reduced to the colourless form by a reductase on the cell surface. Consequently, cells that are alive will not stain and appear colourless. In contrast, dead cells are damaged (in particular the membrane), and Methylene Blue will pass freely into them, and because they also do not contain a functioning reductase, they appear blue. In these images, I’ve used Methylene Blue to stain samples of natural pond waters to reveal both their living microbiological life and also that which has passed (the blue staining). The Methylene Blue reveals these lifeless ghosts, and their associated structures, but also highlights the integral role of these now lifeless forms, in maintaining microscopic ecologies, and the transformation of their substance into new life.

An off the shelf cell viability assay for use in DIY Biology and BioArt

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless and dead cells blue.

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless and dead cells blue.

A preparation of dead yeast  cells which all stain blue

A preparation of dead yeast cells which all stain blue

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless  and dead cells blue.

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless and dead cells blue.

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless  and dead cells blue.

A preparation of dead and living yeast cells. Living cells are colourless and dead cells blue.

The viability assay used in a microtitre plate. The cells around the outside are alive and reduce the dye to its colourless form. The dead cells in the centre cannot reduce the dye and remain blue.

The viability assay used in a microtitre plate. The cells around the outside are alive and reduce the dye to its colourless form. The dead cells in the centre cannot reduce the dye and remain blue.

Methylene Blue can be employed as a viability indicator to determine whether cells are alive or dead. Because of its size and positive charge, it does not enter into viable cells and gets reduced to the colourless form by a reductase on the cell surface. Consequently, cells that are alive will not stain and appear colourless. In contrast, dead cells are damaged (in particular the membrane), and Methylene Blue will pass freely into them, and because they also do not contain a functioning reductase, they appear blue. Here’s an off the shelf/DIY method of this viability assay which uses Methylene Blue in the form of a widely available fish medicine.

Bioluminescent Cities

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These are experiments for a new project in development with Bompass and Parr, the creation of a Bioluminescent City. In this test moulded Bioluminescent Agar, was inoculated with the bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum HB, a hyper bright stain of this bioluminescent bacterium. The result is a living city which is imbued with a beguiling and  blue biological light.