“We live now in the “Age of Bacteria.” Our planet has always been in the “Age of Bacteria,” ever since the first fossils—bacteria, of course—were entombed in rocks more than 3 billion years ago. On any possible, reasonable or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on Earth. Our failure to grasp this most evident of biological facts arises in part from the blindness of our arrogance but also, in large measure, as an effect of scale. We are so accustomed to viewing phenomena of our scale…as typical of nature.” Stephen J. Gould.
The chemical properties of pure water are universal, and unchanging, and what gives seas and oceans their unique identities, are the chemicals and minerals that exist within water itself, and between the spaces of its polar molecules. In this unique artwork, the water has been removed from a sample of Atlantic seawater, in order to reveal its defining and usually invisible elemental signature. These images were taken using a microscope with 100-times magnification, and I’m struck by how this microscopic landscape resembles the same ocean as seen from many thousands of metres above, and how the microcosm and macrocosm appear to meet here.
“as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.” War of the Worlds, H.G Wells
“These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things–taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many–those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance–our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow” War of the Worlds, H.G Wells
These are some of the opening and closing lines of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, a narrative bookended by powerful descriptions of microbiological life. I read this book in my early teens and became obsessed with this invisible, yet vast and powerful domain of life. Little did I know then, that I would spend a career scrutinizing and studying these life forms and that, in some sense, I would become that “man with a microscope”, and that whilst using far more powerful methods to study microbes, I’d never tire of gazing at them down such a simple microscope.
” as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were
scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a
microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and
multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to
and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their
assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the
infusoria under the microscope do the same.” War of the Worlds, H.G Wells
100x magnification, Differential Interference Microscopy.
This is a new collaboration with artist Alice Dunsheath that brings to light the vast diversity, and activity of the human microbiome. Each individual video here is of an actual member of my own microbiome, observed at 1000x magnification using a Differential Interference Contrast (DIC) microscope. The work illustrates differences in cell type, size and shape, and also motility. Some of the bacteria here are non-motile and seem happy to drift along on microscopic currents, whilst others move with a frenzied intent.
A massive thank you to Alice Dunsheath for her help with this.
This is a work from a new series of explorations that continue my fascination with purely biogenic designs. The colours and patterns derive directly from nature, and explore its complexity, natural laws, and inherent creativity. Each design also reflects, and is generated by a story, much like a traditional tapestry might be. In this work though, the colours and designs are generated solely by naturally pigmented bacteria, as they move through a silk fabric and interact with each other.
Here is the story of this particular design. Three cultures of pigmented bacteria have been inoculated onto silk. These living bacterial cultures are Serratia marcescens (red), Chromobacterium violaceum (purple) and Arthrobacter polychromogenes (blue). The red and purple bacterial strains are motile, and thus the bacteria begin to move and swarm through the textile colouring it with their corresponding pigments wherever they are present. The blue living pigment, however, is not motile however, and thus can only remain where it was inoculated. After 24 hours of incubation red and purple have moved, but whilst blue has also grown it has remained at its site of inoculation.
After 60 hours of incubation red has begun to overcome blue, but the purple pigmented bacterium cannot approach it. It’s thus likely that blue produces an antibiotic the red is resistant to, but that purple isn’t.
This is a work from a new series of explorations that continue my fascination with purely biogenic designs. The colours and patterns here all derive directly from nature, and explore its complexity, natural laws, and inherent creativity. Each design also reflects, and is generated by a story, much like a traditional tapestry might be. In this work though, the colours and designs are generated by a genetically modified bacterium that produces a purple pigment when it detects communication signals for other bacteria.
Here is the story of this particular textile design. Bacteria possess complex chemical communication systems that endow them with a form of social intelligence. In the simplest sense they use these systems to signal their presence to other related bacteria and through this census-taking, ensure that their communities express only specific functions at particular and appropriate population densities. These systems also allow bacterial communities to operate a form of bacterial democaracy in that individual cells can vote on issues affecting the entire population, and influence decisions. The same processes allow bacteria also 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 its cells will be white but it turns purple when it receives many communication signals from other bacteria. When it grows in colonies, individual bacteria of this species are continually sending and receiving signals and consequently the colony will be purple. I have a genetically modified version of C. violaceum called CV026 that is effectively mute. It has been modified so that it can receive chemical communication signals and respond to them, but it cannot send them, so that it only turns purple if it detects a communication signal from another type of bacterium. In this sense, it is a unique sensor for bacterial communication giving a striking and direct visualization of this phenomenon.
In this work the sensor strain has been inoculated onto the silk textile as a series of three squares, and then on both sides of these squares, a long streak of the bacterium Erwinia carotovora has been added.
Both bacteria are initially colourless but E. carotovora produces a communication signal that CV026 can detect and respond to, and as the bacteria move through the fabric and where the bacteria then meet and interact, CV026 begins to produce its purple pigment. The area of purple colouration and its design directly reflects this interaction.
This is a work from a new series of explorations that continue my fascination with purely biogenic designs. The colours and patterns derive directly from nature, and explore its complexity, natural laws, and inherent creativity. Each design also reflects, and is generated by a story, much like a traditional tapestry might be. In this work though, the colours and designs are generated solely by naturally pigmented bacteria, as they move through a silk fabric, interact with each other, and respond to various challenges offered to them.
Here is the story of this particular design. Two cultures of pigmented bacteria have been inoculated onto silk in the form of a long streak at either end. The two living cultures are Serratia marcescens (red) and Chromobacterium violaceum (purple). In addition, towards the centre of the silk, four drops of the antibiotic cloxacillin have been introduced onto the fabric to provide a challenge, and in the hope that much like wax does in the Batik Process, these spots might act as a resist (the antibiotic is colourless so these spots are invisible at first).
Both bacterial strains are motile, and thus the bacteria begin to move and swarm through the textile colouring it with their corresponding pigments wherever they are present. In terms of the territory occupied it can be seen the red coloured bacterium has gained the greater share of the silk, and could thus be considered to be the faster moving, and most aggressive species. In the greater territory occupied by the red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens, however, there are two undyed circles within the silk, and these correspond to the location of the spots of the antibiotic cloxacillin. This red coloured bacterium is clearly sensitive to the antibiotic and it cannot grow in its presence to colour the silk red.
There are two other spots of antibiotic above those that caused the white circles, and the antibiotic has still prevented the growth of Serratia marcescens in these, but here, these Serratia-free zones have been occupied by the purple bacterium, Chromobacterium violaceum, which must be resistant to the antibiotic and which has exploited the antibiotic vulnerability of its competitor, to establish a foothold in its territory.
Smell can evoke the richest of memories, and through this sense our most intimate and affecting moments can be reached more readily than through any other channel. The project is inspired by my own experiences in medical microbiology, and how we were taught to presumtively identify bacterial pathogens on the basis of the aroma that they generate. To this day I can still remember the moment, when in an undergraduate microbiology lab class, the late Joyce Fraser told me that Haemophilus influenza when grown on blood agar smells of semen! She was of course quite correct. Here are some other bacterial aroma notes:
Eikenella corrodens: bleach
Staphyloccocus aureus: skin-like smell with a secondary smell of bread.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa: initial smell of grapes with a secondary smell of tortillas
Group F Beta Hemolytic Streptococcus: strong buttery smell
Staphylococcus epidermidis: body odour
Streptococcus intermedius: butterscotch
Proteus vulgaris: burnt chocolate
Flavobacterium odoratum and Alcaligenes faecalis (formerly Alcaligenes odorans) freshly cut apple
Streptomyces coelicolor: freshly dug soil/autumnal woodlands
Gluconoacetobacter species: vinegar
Clostridium perfringens: horse shit
I’m attempting to generate a highly personalized perfume, that smells of me, or as the many bacteria of my microbiome generate my unique bodily aroma, that also is derived from these prokaryotic cells. This is a first screen to isolate bacteria from my microbiome.