Ecologies of the Sole: visualizing microgeographical journeys.

 Microgeography is  “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment on the behaviour, of the overlooked, but ubiquitous and important microbiota of our urban landscapes” The relationship between an urban environment, and its microbial and human inhabitants is explored through informed observation, and via a variety of playful and inventive strategies. It takes pedestrians off their predictable macroscopic paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban microbiological landscape.  These unconventional and unique maps trace microgeographical  journeys. They do not report distances, or reflect the visible layout of our cities or towns, but emerge from the accumulated microflora that we unintentionally gather on our travels through any environment.  In these examples, walkers were given a pair of sterile shoes, and after their own personal journeys, the microflora that had accumulated on the sole of these shoes was developed and revealed by imprinting them onto bacteriological growth media.

Science Fiction: The Poison Master, Liz Williams

This is another work from a series that engages three of my passions, science, art and science fiction. Aspergillus flavus is a common species of mould with a rather poisonous attitude. It produces a group of compounds called aflatoxins, which are not only acutely toxic, but also amongst the most carcinogenic substances known to mankind. It’s difficult not to imagine this mould as a microbial poison master, so I took a page of Liz Williams’s book of the same name and inoculated it to see how the two Poison Masters would get on together!

Science Fiction: The Scar, China Miéville

This is the first of a series of works that engages three of my passions, science, art and science fiction. At random, I tore a page from The Scar by China Miéville and inoculated it with a bacterium whose characteristics I thought  matched the written words. The text was inoculated with the naturally red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens. Obviously, this strain becomes a metaphor for a type of perptual blood as it multiplies and moves around the page, and insinuates itself into the fabric of the paper. In this way, it’s characterisitcs come to match China’s writing. Bacteria actually contain haemoglobins similar to our own, and thus possess the origins of our very own blood.

Bacillus mycoides: zone of inhibition

This is a bit of fun I did with my children to show them the dangers of eating too many sweets. Bacteria are commonly used as poweful sensors for toxins and environmental pollutants so for this experiment I fed some Gummy Bear sweets to the spreading soil bacterium Bacillus mycoides. As you can see from the images above, it doesn’t have many problems with the orange sweet but it seems to find the green sweet very unpalatable and actively avoids it. The zone of no growth around the green sweet is called a zone of inhibition, and a similar method is routinely used to test the effectiveness of antibiotics against bacteria. Here the sweet would be replaced by a paper disc loaded with the antibiotic of interest.

A unique palette of living colour and attitude

This is the palette of naturally pigmented bacteria that I collected and prepared for a Wellcome Trust  project with artist JoWonder. Jo painted a living interpretation of John Millais’ famous painting “Ophelia” using this palette of living colour. Beyond, their colour each pigment is also unique in its inherent characterisitcs. For example, some species are aggressive and will seek to dominant the others, whilst others adopt effective defensive strategies.

The Autobiography of a Slime Mould: memories of failure externalized:

The slime mould Physarum polycephalum is a single-celled organism without an obvious nervous system. Nevertheless, it has recently been shown to use an external spatial memory to navigate. When it explores an environment, it leaves behind a trail of extracellular slime, which if it encounters later, it strongly avoids. This response ensures that the organism does not revisit areas that it has already investigated.  The avoidance behaviour is also a choice because when no previously unexplored territory is available, the slime mould no longer avoids the slime. In essence then it possesses an externalised memory, which because it relies on feedback from chemicals, maybe a precursor to our own.  I have developed a novel process that selectively reveals the slime mould’s external memory as it explores its environment.  The blue-grey threads are the living organism itself which now occupies the routes where exploration resulted in success, that is, it found food sources.  Remarkably, this “success” is surrounded by a matrix of failed possibility (the purple trails), that is the paths that the slime mould explored but that were never successful but which are still revealed by the unique process.

Biogenic Design: petrichor and woodland

This is an example from a series of works featuring purely biogenic designs, which explore the inherent creativity and properties of bacteria. The living designs here are generated by species of a bacterium called Streptomyces. These are ubiquitous inhabitants of soils, where they play a vital role in degradation and recycling of decaying natural material. They also adept at manipulating human senses, as they emit a compound called geosmin, that is largely responsible for the intoxicating smell of woodlands in autumn and petrichor, the distinctive and beguiling aroma that accompanies the first heavy rain after a dry spell. This is a test for a conceptual textile, with a pretty living design, that would be used in curtains that would also generate natural aromas for the home, that would replace the brash and overpowering synthetic scent of air fresheners, with the natural perfume of autumn woodlands and petrichor.

Soil Culture: emergent life forms

Soil is the matrix upon which all terrestrial life depends and one of its most vital components are the many billions of bacteria that live within it. For this work, I developed a novel process which allows this normally invisible bacterial community that unerpins all terrestrial life and civilisation, to become visible. Here this massively complex community emerges from small droplets of soil from various sites and becomes visible through its own activity (the complex community is revealed through the use of specially selected chromogen which is colourless until the soil bacteria interact with it to produce a fluorescent compound which glows upon exposure to ultraviolet light). The patterns arise as the normally invisible microbial communities emerge from the soil and colonise the agar surface. Each soil sample produces a unique pattern or glyph.