Proteus mirabilis and the double-slit experiment

Patterns generated by Proteus and is moves past the paint of the edge of a slit.

Patterns generated by Proteus and is moves past the paint of the edge of a slit.

Patterns generated by Proteus and is moves past the paint of the edge of a slit.

Patterns generated by Proteus and is moves past the paint of the edge of a slit.

The double-slits with the concentric circle-like colonies of Proteus beneath.

The double-slits with the concentric circle-like colonies of Proteus beneath.

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A typical colony of Proteus. "like ripples on a pond after a stone has been thrown in"

A typical colony of Proteus. “like ripples on a pond after a stone has been thrown in”

The bacterium Proteus mirabilis is a cause of urinary tract infections and has a particular predilection for the kidneys.  It is named after Proteus , the character in Homer’s Odyssey who “has the power of assuming different shapes to escape being questioned” This is an apt name, because this organism displays a striking  morphogenesis which involves periodic oscillation between a specialised and hypermotile swarmer cell type and a form which remains stationary and grows. The cumulative effects of movement and differentiation results in colonies that have a unique structure that appears like concentric circles. It’s easy to imagine this bacterium growing like the expanding ripples on the surface of a pond that emerge after a stone is thrown into it. With this in mind, I decided to subject this bacterium to Young’s Double-Split experiment using blue water colour to define the slits. This is a seminal and unsettling physics’ experiment that demonstrates that matter and energy can display the characteristics of both waves and particles, and which also reveals the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum the world. Here’s what happened.

Jelly Baby Demon

jelly baby demon

A long time ago I decided to feed some Jelly Babies to one of my favourite bacteria Bacillus mycoides. Don’t ask me why! One of the most striking outcomes of this is the finding that the bacteria don’t like the Jelly Baby and cannot grow anywhere near it. A lesson for our children perhaps? I’ve only just now though picked up on the rather denomic aspect of this image! The Jelly Baby certainly looks to have attitude.

Experiment 11. Antagonistic Actinomycetes.

A BioTextile impregnated with Mycobacterium vaccae.

A BioTextile impregnated with Mycobacterium vaccae.

Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless and probably beneficial strain of a group of bacteria that also cause tuberculosis

Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless and probably beneficial strain of a group of bacteria that also cause tuberculosis

Streptomyces griseus, a Streptomycin producing bacterium.

Streptomyces griseus, a Streptomycin producing bacterium.

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On the morning of 23rd August 1943 Albert Schatz sat at his workbench and opened is notebook. On page32, in his meticulous cursive he entered the title of his new experiment “Experiment 11. Antagonistic Actinomycetes”. This was to be a key experiment in the discovery of Streptomycin, the first antibiotic that was to prove effective against tuberculosis. Unfortunately for Schatz, his PhD supervisor Selman Waksman, mounted a vigorous and rather unpleasant campaign which led Waksman, and not Schatz, being awarded Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1952, and also through this, he managed to eliminate the PhD student’s role as a co-discoverer from the history books.

These are the early steps for a new work of the same title as Schatz’s key experiment that will use the same bacteria used in his work, namely the Streptomycin producing bacterium Steptomyces griseus and a harmless strain of Mycobacterium. The work will reflect antagonism both within, and far outside of the Petri dish.

BioProspecting for art, antibiotics and cancer cures:

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Streptomyces are a species of bacteria commonly found in soil. Being metabolically diverse they are able to utilize many different types of compounds and are thus vitally important for the ecology of soil, and indeed, much of the characteristic earthy smell of healthy soils arises from chemicals emitted by this species. Beyond this, Streptomyces are the largest group of antibiotic producing bacteria in the microbial world, producing the majority of antibiotics used in human medicine, and with some of their compounds giving rise to cancer therapies. Despite this, the number of new antimicrobial compounds reported to have been isolated from this group has declined in recent years and is predicted to fall to zero in the next 1-2 decades. The Streptomyces, as a group, are predicted to be capable of producing at least 100,000 antibiotics, and only a minute fraction of this therapeutic diversity has been unearthed so far. The reduction in reports describing new antibiotics arising from these bacteria is due then to a decline in screening efforts rather than due an exhaustion of their compounds. This is a dry run for a project where artists would be encouraged and empowered, so that they could prospect their local environments for Streptomyces species, with the aim of revealing these beautiful but overlooked bacteria, perhaps discovering new antibiotics, and reinvigorating scientific interest in them. These isolates of Streptomyces, come from a local haunt, Old Down Wood and confirm the suitability of the isolation process.