I have an ongoing AHRC funded project with artist Sarah Craske that seeks to examine the relationship between art and science through an analysis of a 300-year-old English copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that Sarah stumbled upon in a corner of an East Kent junk shop. It dates from 1735, and in its nearly 300 years of existence it has passed from reader to reader, picking up layers of biological history (bacteria, viruses, skin cells).
Through Sarah’s research we have found out that the book predates the technology that allowed wood to be converted into paper, and that instead, it pages are made from used clothes (rags). A ready source of such material was from the garments of individuals who had died in their many thousands in hospitals. Given the intimacy of clothing to the body, these rags would have contained human skin cells, bodily fluids, and perhaps even the bacteria that might have caused the infection that killed their original owners. In the context of Ovid’s own stories of Metamorphoses, I find it profound, that this very intimate material with its own hidden biological message, has itself been transformed into the pages of book in this way.
When examined under a microscope, the fibres from these clothes are clearly visible and most of them appear to be bleached and colourless. Occasionally though, the microscope reveals a brightly coloured 300-year-old thread that must have been woven into the fabric of the paper during its making. In a sense, I feel as if these threads are microscopically illustrating Ovid’s text, with their own abbreviated stories of tragedy given their likely origin and processes outline above.
“There shall be in that rich dust a richer dust concealed”
Over the past bank holiday weekend, I’ve been running DIY/Kitchen Microbiology workshops for Strange Science at the wonderful Eden Project. In a few spare moments that I had, I gathered a ubiquitous grey dust that I found in forgotten corners of The Core building, and examined it under the microscope setup that I had brought with me for the workshops.
The microscope revealed the grey and fragile dust clots to be incredibly complex tangles of textile microfibers (and occasional human hairs), that had silently shed off the clothing of the site’s millions of visitors, and then collected in undusted corners. Not all, but many of these microfibers, will be filaments made of synthetic and petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that are woven together into our fabrics, and as such they represent an insidious form of plastic pollution. The Eden Project is remarkable and important, and takes huge efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, but this demonstrates that how, sometimes despite our best efforts and intentions, we can inadvertently pollute our environments.
The finding of this plastic rich dust at the Eden Project is not of huge environmental issue here, but it does highlight a much more significant environmental concern. When we launder the same clothes that we wore at the Eden Project, the same synthetic microfibres will be released in their thousands, to go down the drain to the sewage treatment plant, and then to finally end up in natural bodies of water. This type of microplastic has been found in all environments examined so far, and laboratory studies have shown it to be environmentally persistent and to have physical and chemical impacts on marine organisms.
Here’s some rather fabulous art made by the BMS1035 Practical and Biomedical Microbiology Students at the University of Surrey. An artful diversion whilst we were isolating and identifying disease causing bacteria in clinical specimens.
And the winner is Ed Miliband with his marvelous fungal quiff!
The microbiome also likes the Green Party, perhaps not unsurprisingly!
Seems to have of the vote of my microbiome. Unfortunately, the bacteria have changed Nicola’s features somewhat.
The toxicity of these three seems to have made the bacteria reluctant to colonise these individuals! Thanks for the suggestion Jo Milne.
My microbiome, that is the billions of bacteria that live on and in my body, in terms of cell number outweigh my own population of human cells 10 to 1. Given this numerical superiority, I felt it only fair that they get a say in deciding my vote in the upcoming general election. And so, building upon a process first suggested by Poulomi Desai, I mixed my microbiome with the candidates and asked them to vote. Obviously, they are not able to tick a box, and so I “asked” the bacteria of my microbiome to move towards, and grow on the candidate of their choice. The results are just in!
A project with Anna Dumitriu at The Wellcome Collection’s On Light Event. An alchemical laboratory powered by the cold and ephemeral light of bacterial bioluminescence. Quote ” not only the best thing I’ve seen tonight, but the most incredible thing I’ve seen in years” Makes it all worthwhile.