An exploration of the unique role that the red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens has played in merging the practices of both and art and science
Various images of cultures of the bacterium Serratia marcescens
Some history first
Amongst microbiologists, the bacterium Serratia marcescens is especially noteworthy because of its production of the bright red pigment prodigiosin, and that because of this, its colonies are of a characteristically showy red colour. Very few other bacterial colonies have such a distinctive appearance making this organism very easy to identify on the basis of its colony colour. This characteristic, and the bacterium’s natural red aesthetic, has made it attractive to both scientists and artists alike, and it is difficult to imagine another microbe that has had a greater and more direct involvement in the arts. In fact, even before the birth of microbiology, and the discovery of bacteria, the appearance of S. marcescens was being recorded and even inspiring artists.
S. marcescens has a predilection for growing on foodstuffs, particularly those that are rich in starch, where its red-pigmented growth can be easily mistaken for blood. In this context, as long ago as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras commented on the appearance of a red bloody material on foodstuffs. Another very similar incident was recorded in 332 B.C. at the siege of Tyre in Phoenicia (today’s Lebanon) in which the army of Alexander the Great is reported to have gained inspiration from an omen of what they perceived as drops of blood that oozed out from the bread eaten by the soldiers. Much later on, the combination of starchy Eucharist bread and damp medieval churches provided many ideal growth opportunities for S. marcescens, and many historical episodes of transubstantiation (the teaching of the Catholic Church in which the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become in reality the body and blood of Christ) have been attributed to the growth of this bacterium and the production of its characteristic red pigment. In one particular episode in 1264, a priest in Bolsena, Italy, was celebrating mass when blood apparently appeared on the communion bread and dripped onto his robe. This was probably the first time that S. marcescens had directly influenced the arts, as the great master painter Raphael commemorated this apparent miracle in his fresco “The Mass of Bolsena”.
Many years later in early July 1819, the source of the miraculous blood was attributed to a microorganism for the first time when a bloody discoloration appeared on cornmeal paste in Italian peasants’ homes in the town of Legnaro. The superstitious peasants were fearful of the apparition of blood, which was believed to be supernatural in origin, with at least one farmer asking for a priest to free his home from evil spirits. When investigating this episode, a young pharmacist called Bartoleno Bizio, demonstrated that the “blood” was generated by the growth of a living organism, as he was able to grow the microbe on fresh and uncontaminated cornmeal, although he mistakenly believed it was a fungus and not a bacterium. He named this organism Serratia marcescens to honour the Italian physicist Serafino Serrati. Noting that the colour of the red pigment decayed rapidly in the presence of light, Bizio gave the species name marcescens, which is derived from the Latin word “to decay”. Bizio’s experiments are also of great historical interest to microbiology in general because they were one of the earliest instances of the use of solid medium, in this case the cornmeal paste, for the cultivation of bacteria.
Use in science
The function of the red pigment prodigiosin in S. marcescens has long been debated but it appears that it offers protection for Serratia in the natural environment by providing protection against excessive ultraviolet light in sunlight. It is also though to serve as an antibiotic active against neighboring moulds and bacteria, and has been shown to have cytotoxic qualities.
Because of the fact that its red coloured colonies are immediately recognizable, the main use of S. marcescens by scientists in the early 1900s was as a biological marker. However, in terms of our modern understanding of the pathogenic potential of this organism, it is surprising to learn of how benign that this bacterium was once considered to be, and how recently this false belief persisted.
One of the first uses as S. marcescens as a biomarker occurred in 1906, when M.H. Gordon was asked to investigate the atmospheric hygiene of the House of Commons after a recent outbreak of influenza that had occurred amongst its members. Gordon, in his now famous experiment, set uninoculated Petri dishes around him in an empty House of Commons, gargled a liquid culture of S. marcescens, and then to determine the spread of this bacterium, he delivered passages from Shakespeare. Following incubation of his agar plates, and the examination of these for its tell-tale red colonies, Gordon found that S. marcescens had dispersed over a wide area and that the bacterium could be spread by speech, in addition to being spread by coughing and sneezing. Moreover, Gordon apparently did not become ill from his experiment as he reportedly suffered no ill effects.
Physicians also used S marcescens widely as a biological marker for studying the transmission of microorganisms because, until the 1950s, this bacterium was considered to be a harmless saprophyte. For example, to demonstrate that the extraction of teeth releases bacteria into the circulatory system, in two classic studies, the bacterium was painted onto the gum or base of a tooth of experimental subjects from which the tooth would later be extracted. After the extraction procedure, blood cultures were obtained and cultured, following which characteristic red coloured colonies of S. marcescens were detected from the blood of many of the patients, confirming that this procedure can act as route of infection of the circulatory system and beyond. It is again reassuring to note, that none of the subjects in these studies were known to have suffered any ill effects.
The most controversial use of S. marcescens as a biologic marker occurred between 1950 and 1952, when an unwitting American public was exposed to this bacterium as part of an experiment called “Operation Seaspray”. During this period, the US Navy released massive numbers of aerosolized cells of Serratia near San Francisco in order to study germ warfare, and the impact of wind and water currents on the release of biological agents. The bacterium was also deliberately released over cities, in bus terminals, and in subways. The military also performed similar tests in other cities across the US over the next two decades, until Richard Nixon halted all germ warfare research in 1969. However, the San Francisco experiment didn’t become public knowledge until 1976.
In more modern times, the use of S. marcescens as a biological marker has ceased because it is no longer regarded as a completely harmless bacterium. The first clinical report involving an infection due this bacterium was also the result of the production of its characteristic red pigment. In 1913, a patient with bronchiectasis reported repeated episodes during which they considered themselves to be producing blood-stained sputum. Later examination, however, revealed that the red-colouration was not due to red blood cells but was a consequence of the presence of S. marcescens in the sputum samples. More recently, in 1958, this bacterium was also shown to be responsible for an unusual episode of “red diaper syndrome” that occurred in a female baby born in 1954 at the University of Wisconsin. Her parents noticed that soiled diapers that had been rinsed with plain water before being placed in a receptacle provided by a commercial diaper laundry service, began to turn red. In response to this, the stool of the infant was cultured and S. marcescens was recovered. For a time, the source of this “red diaper syndrome” remained a mystery as other parents who had infants born at the same time, and who also stayed in the same new-born ward did not observe red diapers. It later though became apparent that a biomedical laboratory, that was within 500 yards of the hospital, had been using S. marcescens in aerosol experiment and that this activity was suspected to be the source of the mysterious phenomenon.
Today, S. marcescens is regarded to be an opportunistic bacterial pathogen, that is it is not able to cause illness in otherwise healthy individuals, but can cause infections in compromised patients. As such this bacterium has been involved in many hospital-acquired infections, and particularly with catheter-associated bacteraemia, urinary tract infections, and wound infections. Whilst its nature as a disease causing bacterium has been recognised since the 1950s, as I can attest to as a former microbiology undergraduate, S. marcescens has been used in microbiology laboratory classes as a biological marker as recently as the 1980s. In this context, I clearly remember handling sticky sweets contaminated with this bacterium, and then shaking hands with my fellow microbiology undergraduates in order to demonstrate the transmission of bacteria by hand shaking. Again, the appearance of its characteristic red-coloured colonies, was used to trace the source of our imaginary outbreak.
As an inspiration for artists
S. marcescens is a remarkable bacterium in terms of its natural and striking red aesthetic, and also because of its history of use by, and impact upon humans. It is then perhaps not surprising that this bacterium has attracted the attention of many artists, even if this was sometimes unwittingly, as was the case for Raphael’s “The Mass of Bolsena” described above.
The first artist to knowingly use S. marcescens, and with an awareness of the true bacterial nature its red pigment is famous, but not necessarily for this reason. The artist was in fact Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of the antibiotic penicillin. Fleming was also perhaps the first BioArtist in that he used living and naturally pigmented bacteria to make what he called ‘Germ paintings’. To make these, he drew the outline of each drawing on nutrient soaked blotting paper and then painted onto these using a palette of pigmented bacteria that he had gathered especially for this purpose. When the bacteria then grew using the nutrients in the blotting paper, they gave rise to the expected colour in the parts of the drawing that they were painted onto. With its striking red colour it’s not surprising that Fleming frequently used S. marcescens as a red and living paint. With his unique bacterial palette he painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes.
Drawing inspiration from the early work of Fleming, in 2006 myself and artist JoWonder made an interpretation of John Millias’s painting Ophelia using an extended palette of naturally pigmented bacteria with living pigments that would not have been available to Fleming in the early 1900s. The palette that we used, including S. marcescens (second from top left), can be seen below. This bacterium made an appearance in our painting as the vivid red poppy, which with its black seeds, represents sleep and death. Our project played with the concept that something beautiful and visually appealing could be made from bacteria, a form of life that is vital to all other life on Earth and including our own lives, yet is usually regarded with disgust.
In her work American Vectors artist Christina Hung made images of American military bases in Iraq using S. marcescens. Depictions of airstrips and the roads that formed the important physical infrastructure of the bases were made using pure cultures of the red-pigmented bacteria. As the cultures grew and the bacterial cells advanced in age, in a manner very unlike non-living paints, they gain a degree of independence and move beyond the control of the artist and contribute to the art in their own unpredictable ways, creating a landscape that evolves over time. The purpose of Hung’s project was to create an image of the American presence in Iraq, presenting the US led war in Iraq as a corrupt and imperialist project designed to engineer a government and culture in order to serve the needs of powerful transnational oil corporations. There is an intriguing link here with the secretive and controversial use of the same bacterium by the same US military in the 1950s as a means of evaluating the impact of germ/biological warfare. It’s also rather ironic then that same concern led to , and was used to support, the US led invasion.
Another artistic process that utilizes Serratia was developed by American BioArtist Zachary Copfer. The method, which he has termed bacteriography, generates striking photograph-like images that are made entirely from bacteria. Copfer’s process is essentially photographic, but instead of using a light sensitive chemical emulsion, he uses living cells of S. marcescens. The images, of celebrities and famous scientists, are made by differentially exposing the bacteria to irradiation, so that those exposed to it die, and those protected from it by a photographic mask, do not, and are thus able to grow to form red colonies and the desired images.
As has been outlined above, both scientists and artists have utilized S. marcescens in their work and mainly because of the characteristic nature of its bight red colonies and growth. In November 2012, watercolour artist Sarah Roberts and myself, began to explore this familiar theme, in a project that would give rise to an unexpected and quite extraordinary outcome. When she visited my laboratory Sarah wanted to explore whether there was any kind of interaction or exchange, between S. marcescens, a living bacterial pigment and her more traditional but lifeless watercolours. In this context, Sarah painted a series of separate shapes and lines onto an agar surface using her carefully chosen watercolours. We then embellished the paintings with a living red pigment, that is with the bacterium S. marcescens. To allow the bacterium to grow so that its interactions with Sarah’s paintings became visible the agar was incubated at 30 C overnight. When we returned the following morning, we were astonished to discover that the bacteria had swarmed over the agar surface and actually moved Sarah’s watercolours around the medium, altering the forms that she had drawn, and transforming the paintings completely. In doing so, the bacteria had converted a relatively simply painting into something far more dynamic and complex. The new and vibrant art that emerges from this process is autogenic and is also a direct expression of the otherwise invisible bacterial activity. The bacterially modified paintings are also a manifestation of our current scientific understanding of the complexity of their behaviour, how bacteria swarm, communicate, move together in a coordinated manner, and build channels to irrigate large bacterial communities. In addition, in another unexpected development, Sarah’s watercolour paints also contained their own hidden bacterial microflora, and when the pigments containing these were painted onto the bacteriological growth media, the bacteria in these grew too and in doing so also brought Sarah’s paints to unexpected life. Examples of these works can be seen below
I should add a brief note of caution here towards the end of this article on a bacterium that has contributed in a unique way to both science and art. The use of microbes in art is not without risks to the artist or to the public, as very few, if any, bacteria can be considered to be completely benign. Take the case of S. marcescens for example, which was for many years considered to be harmless, and which was thus used by scientists without discretion in many experiments that would today, with a modern understanding of the potentially pathogenic nature of this bacterium in compromised individuals would certainly not be permitted. It is in this context, this bacterium makes another, if somewhat infamous, contribution to the world of art.
The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective that explores the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political activism. In their work Germs of Deception the CAE explored military germ warfare experiments, such as Operation Seaspray (above), by apparently introducing S. marcescens into air ducts of an art gallery and using sensor agar plates to monitor the dispersal. In 2004 Steve Kurtz, a member of the CAE and an associate professor of art at the University at Buffalo was preparing to present Free Range Grain, a project addressing the use of genetic modification in agriculture, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, at the same time his wife Hope Kurtz died of heart failure and when emergency personnel arrived on the scene they became suspicious of the materials being used for art and called the FBI. The art materials consisted of several petri dishes containing three bacterial cultures, one of which was of S. marcescens. The next day, as Kurtz was on his way to the funeral home, he was detained by agents from the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force, who informed him that he was being investigated for bioterrorism. Eventually, agents from a number of federal law enforcement agencies including regional branches of the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Buffalo Police, Fire Department, and state Marshall’s office, all descended on Kurtz’s home with some agents being present in Hazmat suits. A cordon was established around his home, and the agents seized his cat, car, computers, manuscripts, books, equipment, and even his wife’s body from the county coroner for further analysis. It seems ironic here, that S. marcescens, a bacterium that was once indiscriminately dispersed over an unwitting American public by the US military, attracted such extreme precautions and such a dramatic response. A week later, and only after the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State had tested samples from his home, it was decided that there was nothing in the home that posed a safety risk, was Kurtz allowed to return home and to recover his wife’s body. Whilst a federal Grand Jury rejected most of the charges levelled against Kurst, they instead handed down indictments of mail fraud and wire fraud. Also indicted was Robert Ferrell, a scientist and former head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, and who provided Kurtz with his bacterial cultures.
Finally, here are some examples of my own projects that have used S. marcescens, as a living textile dye and design agent, as a sustainable printing ink, and as an army in a series of bacterial war-games