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 Exemplary Life of Soil: visualising the Cryptosphere II

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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.

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!