Pale Blue Cellfies

When we casually gob onto a pavement or a sport’s field, how many of us ever take time to consider the truly wonderful nature of saliva. Our saliva is 99.5% water, with the other important 0.5% comprising electrolytes, mucus, glycoproteins, enzymes, antibacterial compounds such as lysozyme. Various enzymes naturally present in saliva initiate the processes of digestion and begin to breakdown food. Saliva also serves as a lubricant, wetting food and thus permitting swallowing, and also protects the mucosal surfaces of the oral cavity from desiccation. It also bathes and nourishes the oral microbiome (that is the natural bacterial microflora of the mouth).

The various  images here were taken during a  workshop at ASCUS  (@_ASCUS ) that I ran,  and are of participants saliva imaged after a DIY staining method that I developed  and using a portable Newton field microscope and my iPhone.

Below is an image of the field microscope used

IMG_0951

The field microscope in situ

 

 

Below are the stained spit specimens on glass microscope slides as visible to the human eye

Stains

Below are the same slides as imaged by the microscope.You can clearly see cheek epithelial cells from the people taking part and with the darker stained nuclei that contained the participants genomes. The tiny specks are mostly bacteria from the oral microbiome.

 

For comparison the image below was taken of my own spit after the same DIY staining process but instead using a powerful laboratory microscope. The lab microscope does produce a better image but it cost £30,000 and is a lab-bound beast that cannot be taken on expeditions. In comparison, the field microscope, which costs around £500, does a pretty good job.

MM3

 

Finally, whilst still on the subject of spit, please follow the link below to see another version of Cellfies, with artist Heather Barnett and myself, in which we used  a Differential Interference Contrast microscope to image spit specimens from  both of us.   The advantage of this microscope is that it allows us to see cells in detail and without staining,  and in a way that the cells stay alive and active. In the video you can see bacteria from the mouth, epithelial cells, and immune cells called neutrophils in action.

Cellfies: cellular selfies with DIC microscopy

The video can be seen at the Menagerie of Microbes exhibition (#MenagerieOfMicrobes) at @Summerhallery as part of @EdSciFest

C-MOULD at Edinburgh International Science Festival

C-MOULD, is the world’s largest collection of microorganisms for use in the arts and design, with over 50 different kinds of microorganism. You can now see some of its notable bacteria, in the flesh as it were, at the wonderful Menagerie of Microbes curated by Heather Barnett and James Howie of ASCUS. Some examples of the exhibits are described below.

Wargame

Bacterial War-games. The design here (above)  is  generated entirely by naturally pigmented bacteria, and their various and manifold interactions with each other. Inspired by the military board games of my childhood such as Risk and Campaign, here the brightly coloured plastic pieces have been replaced with microscopic armies comprising billions of cells of different bacteria. The design represents the visible outcome of a complex microscopic war. For example, the red- and purple-pigmented bacteria were aggressive, swarming to invade some of the other species, whilst blue and orange adopted defensive strategies and produce powerful, yet uncharacterized antibiotics, against red to protect their own territory. In collaboration with the MILES team, University of Surrey.

 

Book

 

BacterioFabrication: a grown book. The bacterium Gluconoacetobacter xylinus, naturally produces films of bacterial cellulose, identical in structure to the plant based material that is found in cotton and paper. GXCELL, is a unique hyper-cellulose producing strain of this bacterium which rapidly, and sustainably, forms thick mats of this versatile and natural polysaccharide. The small book shown here was grown from and made entirely from bacteria. Not only is the fabric of its pages (GXCELL) produced by bacteria, but the book is also printed and illustrated with naturally pigmented bacteria. To our knowledge, this is the first book to be grown and produced using just bacteria (image above).

Gem

New BioMineralogies. The bacterium Cupriavidus metallidurans was originally isolated in 1976 from a highly toxic pond in an abandoned  metal factory, and is notable because it withstands high concentrations of many different heavy metals. It is anthropogenic, in that it has evolved to live in toxic and metal rich man-made environments. It has also been shown to produce metallic gold, when grown in the presence of salts of this element, and may even be involved in gold deposition in nature. The strangely beautiful pendant on this necklace  (above) is an amalgam of this gold-producing bacterium, deposited bacterial gold, gold, and gold salts. A saffranin stain reveals the presence of the bacterium.

AnxS

The unique bacterial anxiolytic snuff set. A bespoke snuff box with snorting tube. The image on the lid is of a Ziehl–Neelsen stained preparation of M. vaccae (the bacterium used to make the snuff) at 1000-times magnification.

 

image[6]

A close up of the unique anxiolytic M. vaccae snuff, revealing its crystalline nature.

MvHankb

The companion handkerchief which has been impregnated with M. vaccae, and has been stained with a specific dye ( Ziehl–Neelsen) that uniquely reveals this bacterium. The deep red letters are made by the growth of the bacterium within the textile which is revealed by the stain

BacterioAnxiolytics. Mycobacteria are an important group of bacteria which includes pathogens known to cause serious diseases in humans, including tuberculosis and leprosy. Whilst the diseases caused by this genus of bacteria can be devastating, one of its members, Mycobacterium vaccae, is ubiquitous in soil, and exposure to it has been shown to reduce anxiety, and through this effect, even the ability to learn. This work comprises an anxiety reducing snuff kit, prepared from the bacteria, and a companion handkerchief (images above). The latter is impregnated with M. vaccae, and has been stained with a specific dye ( Ziehl–Neelsen),  that uniquely reveals this bacterium.

 

 

The Bacterial Heart

This pumping “bacterial heart” is made from a type of photosynthetic cyanobacterium called Oscillatoria animalis which is named after the unique oscillatory nature of the movement of its cells. It  forms very long microscopic filaments, which move by sliding over each other, and which are also able to weave themselves into dense mats.

I’ve been experimenting with this bacterium for a while now and investigating its possible use as a sustainable BioTextile, as the bacterium needs just sunlight and air to grow. In one of my experiments, I had carefully nurtured  a beautiful green and dense mat of the bacteria, and was really pissed off when I accidentally knocked the culture flask onto the floor. The plastic flask survived, but my precious cyanobacterial mat had broken up completely to form a dispersed green bacterial soup. I picked the flask up, placed it back on the lab bench, and then went for a much needed coffee.  When I returned to the lab, 30 minutes later, and went back to the flask, to my amazement the mat of Oscillatoria had miraculously reformed, and in some manner the bacteria must have contracted and reorganised to reform their original shape.

The bacterial heart in this video, shows this phenomenon in time-lapse (speeded up from a13 minutes). I really don’t know whether this has been observed before, but the bacterial mass here is behaving collectively and contracting much like our own muscle tissue does. Can this mechanism be utilised to make bacterial muscles for microscopic devices or self-repairing forms?  Can it be harnessed to generate electricity? In more wild speculation, could this contractive mechanism be the evolutionary origin of our own muscle tissue through some endosymbiotic process? Science from art.

The motion of the bacteria as viewed under a DIC microscope

The Microbiome Unbound

Traditionally what we consider to be “self” is usually restricted to the collection of 10 trillion or so eukaryote cells that derive directly from our own genomes. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century are radically redefining this view, so that “self” can now be seen to extend beyond the traditional precinct of our visible form, and to include our resident bacterial community. In fact, these normally invisible cells  in terms of number are at the very least, equal to that of our own cells,   and contain at least ten times more DNA than our own genome. The bacteria that reside on or in our bodies are not merely present as passengers, but they empower us with metabolic functions far beyond the range of our own physiological capabilities. They may even be able to influence our emotions. In this respect, the human body can now be considered to be a superorganism, that is, a “communal group of human and microbial cells (the bacterial symbiont) all working for the benefit of the collective”. These are complex bacterial communities isolated from widely known celebrities to highlight the fact, that at this fundamental level, and irrespective of race or creed, we are all the same.

The Microbiome Unbound, explores the delicate and vital interplay between my human aspect and bacterial self. The images here result from in vivo, and in vitro processes, where my bacterial microflora has been released from the containment imposed by my immune system, and innate antimicrobial defences, and allowed to develop beyond this limitation.

Crystallisation: Lunar Caustic

 

I’m endlessly fascinated by the creativity inherent in nature and chemistry, and in releasing this to generate autogenic art works. This is a central theme that permeates through much of my practice, that is the production of forms that are self-generating, and which emerge from natural and universal laws. I see my role here as a facilitator, so that the work fluctuates in the dialectic between my need to impose control and rigour as a scientist, and the often uncontrollable indeterminacy of the natural world.

The forms here are generated by the process of crystallisation, and my contribution is is simply in the making of bespoke crystallisation cocktails, that are designed to generate specific aesthetics at specific speeds. Once the process starts, it is irreversibly committed to a particular eventuality, over which I have no control at all.

This is silver nitrate.

Crystallisations

I’m  endlessly fascinated by the creativity inherent in nature and chemistry, and in releasing this to generate autogenic art works.  This is a central theme that permeates through much of my practice, that is the production of  forms that are self-generating, and which emerge from natural and universal laws. I see my role here as a facilitator, so that the work fluctuates in the dialectic between my need to impose control and rigour as a scientist, and the often uncontrollable indeterminacy of the natural world.

The forms here are generated by the process of crystallisation,  and  my contribution is is simply in the making of bespoke crystallisation cocktails, that are designed to generate specific aesthetics at specific speeds. Once the process starts, it is  irreversibly committed to a particular eventuality,  over which I have no control at all.

Towards An Aesthetic Of The Opportunistic Pathogen

The bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an important opportunistic pathogen, not capable of infecting the otherwise healthy, but causes significant infections in the compromised,  and especially  individuals with cystic fibrosis.

These are the results that our wonderful undergraduate students produced during  my BMS1035 Practical And Biomedical Bacteriology Module.

Our students first isolated the bacterium from the thin human soup that is swimming pool water (below).

pseudo

Pseudomas aeruginosa isolated from swimming pool water, using membrane filtration and cetrimide agar.

 

P. aeruginosa strains produce two types of soluble pigments, the fluorescent pigment pyoverdin and the blue pigment pyocyanin. The latter  (from “pyocyaneus”) refers to “blue pus”, which is a characteristic of the suppurative infections caused by this bacterium. The former pigment, pyoverdin,  confers fluorescence to colonies of the bacterium (see below)

image-11

Strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa displaying blue fluorescence in response to exposure to UV light.

 

And finally, one of our P. aeruginosa isolates observed at 1000x magnification using a Differential Interference Contrast microscope (below).