Immortal Worlds? is a collaborative project between artist Jac Scott and myself, with our initial investigations being funded by an A-N New Collaboration Bursary. The focus of the project is on mapping the unseen, but vitally important world of bacteria and, particularly how climate change will impact on these organisms, which underpin all of the Earth’s many diverse and living ecosystems. We aim to create innovative and collaborative studies that will not only experimentally and critically engage art and science, but will also spark debate about our rapidly changing world. Our initial explorations have been to replicate natural microbial ecosystems from important environments like salt marshes, wilderness areas, and various water courses, and then to mimic the predicted effects of global warming, like increased temperature, in the laboratory, and finally to observe the outcome. These images are from microbial ecosystems that have been established from a salt marsh in Blakeney, Norfolk. One set of ecosystems has been incubated at temperatures that we might encounter today, and the others at a higher temperature that might be the outcome of global warming. The differences in the health and diversity of the ecologies is both striking and frightening, the low temperature ones flourishing and exhibiting great diversity, with the higher temperature systems being dominated by a form of grey monotonous life and appearing far less balanced.
The inspiration for this work is a research paper that I published in 1997. Entitled “Integration of Heterologous Plasmid DNA into multiple sites on the genome of Campylobacter coli following natural transformation” we demonstrated that certain types of bacteria can naturally take up any DNA that they are mixed with, and integrate this into their own genomes. More recently, a study has shown that naturally competent environmental bacteria can take up any DNA, even it it’s degraded (including DNA from a 43,000-y-old woolly mammoth bone), and incorporate it into their genomes, and thus, natural genetic exchange of DNA from dead and even extinct organisms to contemporary bacteria can take place http://www.pnas.org/content/110/49/19860.full.
In the light of the research above, I have added my own DNA to the column knowing that some of it will be taken up by the bacteria in it and be integrated into their own genomes. In a sense, then I have hacked this bacterial ecology, and corrupted its genetics, so that is now becoming a human/bacterial chimera. The Winogradsky column is also a self-sustaining and perpetual ecosystem, so that over time the sequence of my integrated DNA will be begin to change and mutate, as the bacteria containing it evolve. They will eventually change the meaning of the information embedded within my DNA, and perhaps at some future point in time, redirect its purpose to suit there own ends.
This uniquely dyed fabric is part of an on-going research project that aims to develop sustainable textile dyes, and builds upon the age old practice of using natural plant materials to dye fabrics. Here, however, in this 21st century craft, the sources of the natural pigments are invisible pigment factories, in the form of billions of microscopic cells of bacteria which naturally produce the coloured pigments that can be seen on the textile. I hope to turn the fabric into a Summer Frock that could be worn by a model on a catwalk, as having been autoclaved and survived the process, the material is free of living bacteria and thus safe to handle. In future projects, I am hoping to replace the unsustainable process of indigo production, for the dyeing of, denim with sustainable pigments of bacterial origin.