A Simple Truth

“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 Atlantic: microcosm

sea1 sea3 sea5

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.

transient creatures/transient life

“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.

transient creatures

” 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.

 

The Dark Dance

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.

Biogenic Textile Designs: three colours

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.

 

Just after inoculation, the living red, purple and blue bacteria clearly visible at their corresponding sites of inoculation

Just after inoculation, the living red, purple and blue bacteria are clearly visible at their corresponding sites of inoculation

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 24 hours purple and red have moved as expected (they are motile) and blue remains stationary as its's non-motile.

After 24 hours purple and red have moved as expected (they are motile) and blue remains stationary as it’s non-motile.

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.

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.

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.