Today we take antibiotics very much for granted and face a serious problem with the emergence of widespread bacterial antibiotic resistance as a consequence of their inappropriate use. In the years before 1935, bacterial infections were a deadly and an ever-present risk with people routinely dying after very minor scratches or cuts that became infected. This all changed following Gerhard Domagk’s research on Prontosil, which became the first commercially available antibiotic. In its time, Prontosil was seen very much as miracle drug since after taking it patients who were near-death were revived and became healthy again within hours. Penicillin is often credited as the first antibiotic, but in fact Prontosil had been used to effectively treat bacterial infections for nearly a decade prior to the availability of penicillin became available. Dogmak’s work thus helped to save the lives of many millions. This process deliberately trivialises the synthesis of what was once a valuable wonder-drug and asks us to imagine a future where today’s life-saving antibiotics will be ineffective and similarly be put to inconsequential use.
In these videos two precursors, are mixed together and the bright red/orange antibiotic Prontosil forms at the interface.
LuxCouture: This is a textile that shimmers with a beguiling and unique microbial energy. The threads of the cloth are impregnated with an unimaginably complex ecology of natural bioluminescent bacteria. The light that the textile produces has lure-like properties and immediately attracts and captivates the curious but it also has properties and depth far beyond this initial connection for in order to produce light, the bacteria must communicate with themselves, and through this process recognise kin, so that a lone bacterial cell remains dark and only groups of them bioluminesce. Scientifically, this process, through which bacteria communicate with each other, is known as quorum sensing, and the light that bioluminescent bacteria produce is a direct and visible manifestation of this process. More than this though, its energy is a unique memento of ancient and minute organic exchanges that trace back to the first ever connections amongst unicellular organisms, and so eventually to the original sparkles of our own intelligence. This is an early developmental stage for a project that would incorporate this textile into a dress.
An early prototype for a teeshirt with a mutable design, made from a living and adaptive biology. Modelled by yours truly! The yellow design is the slime mould Physarum polycephalum, a Myxomycete. A few fungal contaminants too!
A bacterial aurora formed in a liquid culture of the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum as it responds to fluctuations in the concentration of oxygen in its environment. The abrupt change in pattern midway through is caused as I interact with them.
I’ve worked at the fertile intersection between and art and science for over ten years now. During this period, I’ve collaborated with nearly fifty artists and now also produce my own work. The outcomes of these many projects have featured at such venues as The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Royal Institution, The Science Gallery (Dublin), The Wellcome Collection, The Eden Project, in many news sites and on the BBC One Show.
The project outline below was my first art and science project, and thus that starting point and inspiration for my journey. It was a SciArt project funded by The Wellcome Trust, and was a collaboration between myself (a bacteriologist) and JoWonder, an artist.
Our idea was to paint an interpretation of Sir John Everett Millais’s famous pre-Raphaelite painting using living and brightly pigmented bacteria as the paints. By making a striking and beautiful painting from life forms which are usually viewed with repugnance and which generally evoke disgust, our aim was to challenge the public perception of bacteria.
Painting in progress
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Act IV, Scene VII
The words above end Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream. These words inspired Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of the drowning Ophelia is one of the most visited pieces at Tate Britain and perhaps the most famous Shakespeare painting of all time. Made over a two-year period in 1851–52, shortly after Millais co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it’s full of the languid calm and bejewelled colour that became his hallmark. Strictly speaking, the scene is imaginary: in Hamlet itself Shakespeare keeps Ophelia’s death by watery misadventure offstage, and Millais makes the most of the strange poetry in Gertrude’s description (‘Her clothes spread wide, / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up’) to create a paragon of passive innocence who we watch being absorbed into the landscape that surrounds her. Millais’ model, the 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddal, wasn’t so lucky: after hours lying in an inadequately heated bathtub, she caught a cold and left the artist with a heavy doctor’s bill.
Thus ends Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play, with her body floating in a muddy pond. Sir John Everett Millais painted her thus; his Ophelia hangs in the Tate Britain in London. Reproducing such a masterpiece would be difficult, but how about doing so using bacteria as your medium? Artist JoWOnder did that and photographed the result as it changed over six days; all six versions can all be seen in the Microbial Art gallery online:
Gerhard Domagk was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1939 for his research into Prontosil, the first commercially available antibiotic. His work helped to save the lives of millions but his experiences of the First World War however, still haunted him and as a consequence, he kept a skull on his desk as a memento mori for many years. Here is my own desktop skull, one that is self-illuminated by the presence of many billions of cells of bioluminescent bacteria, the type of organisms Prontosil was so effective against. It is my memento monera, a reminder that will live on a planet where the dominant form of life, on any reasonable criterion, is bacteria.
Nest visualised with UV, revealing the fluorescent optical brightner
Nest in daylight
Nest observed under UV, revealing the fluorescent optical brightner
Nest in daylight
Because we are drawn to the bright and the white, many of the commodities of our daily lives are manufactured to artificially express these properties and in particular, to make these look cleaner or newer than they actually are. As a consequence of this, much of what we make or own contains synthetic and anthropogenic compounds called optical brighteners. These chemical agents work by fluorescing, that is by absorbing natural (from the sun) or artificial (from standard lighting) ultraviolet light and converting it into other colours of visible blue light, to make objects appear whiter and brighter than they otherwise are. Optical brighteners are thus commonly found in our clothes, washing powders, paper, plastics, and paints. These compounds are very simple to detect because they fluoresce (emit various colours of light) when they exposed to ultraviolet light and now pollute many of our environments.
A Wasp’s nest, like a book, is made from a type of paper. In a sense, it is also an anthology of short stories unknowingly written by the many wasps who constructed it. In its making, a wasp will strip wood or paper-like material, chew it into paper, and then deposit this into the growing nest as a short section, so that each of the many individual strips in the nest represent the end of a journey for one particular wasp. As each section of paper in the nest retains the characteristics of the material from which is was made, the essence of the wasp’s environment becomes woven into its very fabric. I’ve collected over ten wasps’ now nests, but only this one from Mrs White’s garden depicts a special story. In this nest a wasp has chosen an anthropogenic material containing a fluorescent optical brightener to make its paper and incorporated this into the nest. When exposed to ultraviolet light these areas are revealed by fluorescence and in a sense the Wasp has unintentionally augmented it’s nest with the properties of a manmade material. Just two sections in the entire nest contain this synthetic material and it makes me wonder what happened to that particular wasp. Did it die before it could add more or did it find alternative material? Mrs White’s garden is rather untidy, littered with manmade material, and the wasp’s nest beautifully reflects the reach and the environment of the colony. This observation has provided the inspiration for a future work, in which a captive wasp colony is given only books and literature as building material so that the wasps might fashion their nest from this.
This is the green room for the BBC OneShow. In the grey box at the front, overlooked by photographs of previous guests (such as Kylie Minogue and David Cameron) are billions of living bacteria that appeared on the show back in June 2012. I have say that these prokaryotic celebrities are far more relevant than your average paparazzi fodder! Wached by 3 million people!
Here’s another brief interlude away from microbiology. In the modern laboratory, the process of chromatography is very widely used to separate or to analyse complex mixtures. In the process, the mixture to be investigated is dissolved into a fluid (usually an organic solvent) called the mobile phase, which is then passed through a solid and porous medium called the stationary phase. As the various constituents of the mixture travel through the system at different speeds, they eventually separate. Using this same underlying principle sophisticated laboratory devices can purify, or identify, any soluble or volatile substance provided that the correct conditions are employed.
I was driven to explore chromatography, in an artistic sense, during the time that my mother, Judith Park, was terminally ill with breast cancer. I took flowers as the subject matter for this work as they are associated with funerals and have also attracted the eye of many an artist. At this time, I was also deeply aware that beautiful flower is only a temporary and fleeting state and so decided to use chromatography as a means to speed up its transformation into a decayed form. Immersed into a powerful solvent, the chromatographic mobile phase, the flower became the corresponding stationary phase. Within seconds it began to bleed, loosing that that had once made if beautiful to the surrounding liquid and as if releasing Munch’s red embedded eternity
“From My Rotting Body, Flowers Shall Grow, and I Am in Them, and That Is Eternity” Edvard Munch