It is not generally widely known, but bacteria possess complex chemical communication systems that endow them with a kind of social intelligence. In the simplest sense they are able to signal their presence to other related bacteria and through this census-taking, ensure that their communities express only specific functions at particular population densities. These systems also allow bacterial communities to vote on issues affecting the entire population, and allow bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms.
Chromobacterium violaceum is a common soil bacterium that produces striking purple colonies. In relation to the concept above, the expression of this colour is dependent on bacterial communication so that when a small number of bacteria are present it will be white but it turns purple when it receives a communication from other bacteria. When it grows in colonies, individual bacteria of these species are continually sending and receiving signals and consequently the colony will be purple. I have a modified version of this bacterium (CV026) that is effectively mute. It can receive chemical communication signals and respond to them, but cannot send them, so that it will only turns purple if it detects a communication signal from another bacterium. In this sense, it is a unique sensor for bacterial communication giving a striking and direct visualization of this phenomenon. In these, images the vertical streak is the reporter strain CV026 which in the absence of signals from other bacteria should be white. However, the horizontal streak which is the bacterium Erwinia cartovora, has produced signal molecules, and these have diffused through the media to be recognised by CV026 which has turned purple in response. This is just a test and proof of concept. Further explorations will follow soon.
Two sources of food. A pathway caused by accumulated footfall begins to emerge between the two.
A pathway formed on a horizontal surface, and up a wall, made as the ants return to their nest with food.
A single ant cannot be considered to be “intelligent”, but when many interact as part of a colony, intelligence arises as an emergent property of their collective communication. Within the colony, each ant follows very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual ants should behave, interactions between ants lead to the emergence of an “intelligent” global behaviour. Thus, whilst the ant colony exhibits what might be called swarm intelligence, individual ants are completely unaware of this. In this sense, an ant colony is similar to a human brain where the many neurons, each of which can only perform a limited number of processes, combine to give intelligence and consciousness. Here I developed a novel process which uses in situ fluorescent tagging to plot the accumulated footfall of the many thousands of ants within a colony so that its emergent collective intelligence is revealed. In future, I plan to selectively place food sources, so that the ants might draw figures as a child would complete a dot-to-dot picture.
This is a little exploratory excursion away from the world of microbes, which challenges the way that we perceive familiar life forms. The pigments that give flowers and vegetables their striking colours are generally exquisitely sensitive to the environment around them so that small changes in pH (acidity or alkalinity),or the presence or absence of metal ions dramatically affects their colour. In essence then, you can take a naturally coloured flower or vegetable, and dramatically change its colour simply by changing environmental conditions within the plant in situ. No paints or dyes were used here, just subtle and induced alterations in plant biochemistry. Here, I’ve tailored the process so that the plants reveal hidden messages about their purpose.
This is a little exploratory excursion away from the world of microbes, which challenges the way that we perceive familiar life forms. The pigments that give flowers and vegetables their striking colours are generally exquisitely sensitive to the environment around them so that small changes in pH (acidity or alkalinity),or the presence or absence of metal ions dramatically affects their colour. In essence then, you can take a naturally coloured flower or vegetable, and dramatically change its colour simply by changing environmental conditions within the plant in situ. No paints or dyes were used here, just subtle and induced alterations in plant biochemistry.
A selection of Bioglyphs generated by liquid cultures of bioluminescent bacteria. These are still images of a very dynamic phenomenon and the patterns change second to second. I have thousands of these, and as each one is unique, I feel like I’ve briefly glimpsed infinity.
In May 2012, the BBC OneShow featured a short video of my work with bacteria and art. In a broadcasting first, I managed to get a living work of bacterial art onto live television in front of an audience of more than 3 million people. The most rewarding aspect for me though was the fact that I managed to get the living bacteria into the One Show Green Room, and where Kylie Minogue or David Cameron and many other celebrities had once been, there they now were, silent but alive and breathing.