A painting of a tree made entirely from living bacteria. In the simplest sense, it is an illustration of a tree made of life, but it is also far more than this. Perhaps it is a phylogenetic tree whose branches depict the lines of evolutionary descent of different species. If it is, being made from bacteria, it is painted using the very life forms whose 16S RNA sequences, make such an evolutionary plot possible, and whose DNA signatures are still embedded, like genetic fossils, in all living things. The tree has also blossomed, and again its striking flowers are a visible manifestation of complex evolutionary processes, of mutation, natural selection, and genetic exchange. I can’t help but think that Charles Darwin would have been intrigued had he been alive to see this.
The formation of ice in clouds is a prerequisite for the formation of snow and most rainfall, with dust and soot particles able to initiate its formation by acting as ice nuclei. Certain species of bacteria, however, are able to catalyse ice formation at temperatures as warm as -2 degrees C and thus at a temperatures far higher than most non-biological , organic or inorganic substances are able to. Consequently, atmospheric bacteria are likely to play a vital role in initiating rain and snowfall. It has also been suggested that bacteria present in clouds may have evolved to use rainfall as a means of dispersing themselves, in that rain or snow forms their return journey to earth, so that these organisms form part of a constant feedback system between terrestrial ecosystems and clouds.
Here I caught snowflakes and then carefully nurtured their ice-nucleating bacterial cores in the lab. The purfied cores were then introduced into supercooled water to induce ice nucleation and so to trap the bacteria within ice once more.
A collection of my BioTextile experiments and concepts all in one place!
On a day, where the government’s chief medical officer for England has predicted an “Antibiotic Resistance Apocolypse” here is The Sensitive Cloth, a novel textile impregnated with living bioluminescent bacteria. Not only can the textile be used to make a beguiling bioluminescent dress that glows in the dark, but as living bacterial cells emit light and dead ones do not, the material also provides a unique and rapid real-time monitor of antibiotic activity. It could conceivably, be used as an aesthetically interesting and rapid screen for new antibiotics.
This is a joint project with water colour artist Sarah Roberts to study the interaction of bacteria with traditional water colours. Many different types of bacteria have been assessed but only two so far, can be said to paint. When the white pigmented bacterium Proteus mirabilis, and the red Serratia marcescens are placed onto the same medium as traditional water colours, they swarm over its surface, come into contact with the paints, and then move the water colours around, in the same way that an artist might paint. Many people, including Alexander Fleming, have painted with bacteria before, but here for the first time, it is the bacteria themselves that are painting and expressing activities that would otherwise be invisible. The paintings are expressions of a microscopic reality, in which billions of invisible, mobile, and socially intelligent cells can decide whether life is getting better or worse, and decide together what to do as a response. They also reflect the latest current scientific understanding of the complexity of bacterial behaviour, how they swarm, communicate, collaborate, and build channels to irrigate large and complex bacterial communities. The “painters” also seem to possess individual character traits with Serratia marcescens making large and extravagant sweeps with the water colours. In contrast, Proteus mirabilis, appears more conservative, and makes more subtle adjustments in the arrangement of the colours. I’m no art critic, but these remind me of the Abstract Impressionism movement, with its emphasis on spontaneous and automatic creation, and created by billions of invisible Prokaryotic Pollocks.
As the title says the images are of two cultures, not art and science, then perhaps they are. The cultures are of bacteria, the red one being Serratia marscens and the other Proteus mirabilis. The cultures have grown and spread from their original point of inoculation, but then become aware of each other. They appear to be tentatively exploring each other, and perhaps deciding what to next.
A “flashing” culture of bioluminescent bacteria. That’s all it is really
It’s not widely known but Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, was also an artist, and perhaps even the first BioArtist. He painted, not with conventional pigments but with living and pigmented bacteria, to make what are known as his germ paintings, and became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club because of this. Fleming painted houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, and other scenes using bacteria. As a brief but engaging distraction from the science, I ask our BMS1035 students to follow in Flemings footsteps, and to paint whatever they want to (within reasonable decency), using a pallette of the same pigmented bacteria that he did.
Here is some of the fabulous art that the students and staff produced. The nature of the media is bacterial and the works inherit their mutable characteristics, of differential growth, mutation, and interaction. As a consequence of this the works never exist in a finished state as the bacteria continually interact, mutate and grow into each other. When this happens, the demarcating lines between, say, a petal and a stem, become blurred and so I hope too, do the lines between art and science.
Inspired by Tony Ballantyne’s science fiction book “Recursion” which features Von Neuman Machines, a class of machines that can replicate themselves. I’ve often toyed with the idea that bacteria are a form of terraforming and biological Von Neuman Machine, and that more complex life, and ourselves arose from these virus-like because of some error in the biological program. Just imagine how pissed off the designers of the machines will be when they return to admire their handiwork and see the human infestation, and damage it has caused to what would otherwise be a pristine planet.
Unlikely, I know but I inoculated a section of Tony’s book with the purple coloured bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum and recorded it’s infiltration and response to the text.
I really like the juxtaposition of the words and the self-replicating and pervasive nature of the bacterium here.
Albrecht Dürer’s painting “The Great Piece of Turf”, in which prosaic subjects, such as weeds, roots and leaves are rendered in detail, is often regarded as painting’s discovery of ecology. Taking inspiration for this painting, my desire was to highlight the invisible and often neglected but sublime bacterial community which resides within the earth and which supports the roots of the more visible turf. 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 allowed this normally invisible bacterial community that not only underpins the piece of turf, but in fact all life, to become visible. Here this massively complex community emerges from the soil present on the roots of a piece of turf (or droplets of soil) and becomes visible through its own activity (the complex community is revealed through the novel 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.