I’ve developed a novel process that rather than recording micro-videos in real-time, records instead the paths taken by microscopic creatures under the microscope. The images generated, result from the accumulation of the activity tracks of these usually invisible life forms and reveal the hugely complicated dynamic of their manifold activities and interactions. The process generates images that are in some sense similar to those of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud chambers. The images here are generated by the microorganisms from a number of watery environments in my own garden and were made in my kitchen using an iPhone and portable field microscope. They could also be made anywhere.
The process is transformative, in that it converts the mundane and disregarded, into something remarkable, not by changing it, but by revealing another level of reality that is usually withheld from us. Each sample generates a unique signature of accumulated biological wavelengths and frequencies.
I’ve developed a novel process that records the paths taken by microscopic creatures, and which for the first time, reveals the extent of their usually invisible activity. It generates images that are in some sense similar to those of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud chambers. The images here are generated by the microorganisms from a number of watery environments in my own garden and were made in my kitchen using an iPhone. Each sample has a unique signature of biological wavelengths and frequencies. Three very microbiologically active environments and one far less so.
I first read “The War Of the Worlds” by H.G Wells as a young teenager, and its opening lines were my first, and career defining, introduction to the wonder and hidden power of microbiology. Here are those lines:
“that 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.”
I followed my early passion and became a microbiologist, and in a sense am now that “man with a microscope”. If I take a drop of water from a watery environment and observe under a microscope, I know that it’s lenses will reveal to me a frenzied world of microbial life, as so eloquently described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
” So in a single drop of water the microscope discovers, what motions, what tumult, what wars, what pursuits, what stratagems, what a circle-dance of Death and Life, Death hunting Life and Life renewed and invigorated by Death … a many meaning cypher.”
I’ve developed a novel process that records the paths taken by these microscopic creatures, and which for the first time, reveals the extent of their usually invisible activity. The resulting images remind me of images of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud chambers, and thus I have a strong sense that each species reveals its self as a unique biological wavelength and frequency.
I’ve used the technique here to reveal the microbial activity in the water of this rather unpromising bucket of collected rainwater.
The textile designs here have been generated by the growth of different species of Streptomyces, a beguiling species of bacteria. Natural inhabitants of rich forest soils, they emit aroma molecules, and are largely responsible for the intoxicating smell of woodlands in autumn. I like to think of them as the wise old men of microbiology as they have a very complex biochemistry and produce the majority of antibiotics used in human and veterinary medicine. They are also able to produce anti-tumour and anti-parasitic agents, herbicides, and many other bioactive compounds. As a consequence, of this, the swatches of cloth here might have unique curative properties. The textures of the designs are more akin to velvet (think flock wall paper) as the bacteria are filamentous in nature. In addition these bacteria are not motile so the patterns form only where they are inoculated. Another remarkable feature of these textile designs, is that they also possesses the intimate aroma of rich woodland soil.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is widely regarded as one of the founding father’s of microbiology, as he was one of the first individuals to observe protozoa (1674) using a microscope that he hade made, and was also the first person to observe bacteria (1683). In a letter written in September, 1674, Leeuwenhoek describes a spiral microorganism, possibly what we know of today as Spirogyra, in his observations on lake water,
“Passing just lately over this lake, . . . and examining this water next day, I found floating therein divers earthy particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise, and orderly arranged, after the manner of the copper or tin worms, which distillers use to cool their liquors as they distil over”
Van Leeuwenhoek originally referred to these microscopic creatures as animalcules (from the Latin animalculum, meaning tiny animal). Most of his “animalcules” are today referred to as unicellular organisms.
Van Leeuwenhoek, made these observations using lake water, but as the availability of water is the main factor controlling microbial growth, many of the watery niches that we accidentally create in our modern urban environments are also capable of supporting thriving and complex and usually invisible microbial ecosystems.
This is the background behind my concept of Van Leeuwenhoek Havens (Microbial Havens). In a sense, the underpinning process here mimics what we might do at the macroscopic scale if we wanted to turn our gardens into wildlife havens, for example, by deliberately planting wild plants to encourage insects and other wildlife. Here though the objective is to encourage the establishment of complex and thriving microbial ecosystems. The technique is simple. Find an old bowl, jar or other container capable of holding water, fill it with rainwater, then add dead leaves or other dried and dead material from the garden. Prevent this from drying out by topping it up with more rain water and in a few months you will have a thriving and diverse microbial ecosystem.
This is an example of a Van Leeuwenhoek Haven which I established in my own garden (below).
An old cat food bowl in which I established a microbial haven
This is the portable Newton Field Microscope that I used to observe the animalcules.
Observing animalcules in my kitchen using the portable Newton Field Microscope
Below are some of the many infusoria that I have observed in my van Leeuwenhoek Haven
The bacterium Gluconoacetobacter xylinus, naturally produces films of bacterial cellulose, identical in structure to the plant based material. Cellulose is also the major constituent of paper but here it is mainly obtained from wood pulp. The environmental impact of wood-based paper production is significant, it having a number of adverse effects on the environment including, the need for tree monoculture, deforestation, and air, water and land pollution.
Bacteria like the species described above offer an alternative, and possibly more sustainable means of paper production, but one of the limitations of this approach is in the low yields of cellulose produced, and its natural properties. At C-MOULD, we have isolated and characterised a hyper-cellulose producing variant of Gluconoactebacter xylinus called GXCELL which produces much greater amounts of cellulose than other strains. Please see the comparison below.
A thin and fragile cellulose film produced by a normal strain of Gluconoacetobacter xylinus
A thick sheet of cellulose produced by GXCELL
When the mat of bacterial cellulose produced by GXCELL is dried, a thin, brown and transparent film forms. Please see image below.
The dried film of bacterial cellulose from GXCELL
In this form the material has parchment-like properties and this inspired scientists at C-MOULD to produce a small book shown that 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 below).
A small book made entirely from bacteria (pages and ink)
C-MOULD’s full palette of pigmented bacteria. The inks used to print and illustrate the book above.
The “paper” used in the book above is only a crude approximation of paper and would not be suitable as a direct replacement, and so scientists at C-MOULD have been experimenting with treatments to modify the bacterial cellulose into more versatile forms. We have developed one simple treatment that converts the rather fragile and brittle native form of bacterial cellulose into a much more flexible, that is very similar in its properties to paper (see the video below). We call it p-Paper to reflect its bacterial (Prokaryotic life forms) origin and to differentiate from the more conventional e-Paper made from trees (Eukaryotic life forms). It’s flexible can be written on and importantly no trees were harmed during its production.