The World’s Smallest Gardeners: Primitive Agriculture in the Tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini?

I ran a microbiology and art workshop at the Eden Project earlier this week for around 400 members of their team. The event was a prelude to Eden’s groundbreaking Invisible Worlds Project which will explore the world, that we now know, lies beyond our limited human senses. Please follow this link for more information on this unique and important project Invisible Worlds.

As part of this,  I brought a culture of tardigrades (Water Bears/Moss Piglets) to show to the participants using a microscope. The name tardigrade equates to “slow walker”,  and the colloquial name “water bear”  comes from the way they walk, reminiscent of a bear’s gait. Tardigrades are microscopic creatures, usually less than 0.5 mm in length, that by being quite plump, bilaterally symmetrical, segmented,  and having four pairs of legs with bear-like claws, are undeniably and microscopically cute. Having said this, tardigrades are the only animal that can survive in the harsh environment of space. When encountering desiccation, these creatures can lose body water and enter a dehydrated and reversible ametabolic state. This dehydrated form of the tardigrade can withstand a wide range of physical extremes that normally kill other organisms, such as extreme temperatures (from −273 °C2 to nearly 100 °C), high pressure (7.5 GPa), immersion in organic solvents and exposure to high doses of radiation.

The tardigrade I brought to the Eden Project, was Hypsibius dujardini,  a freshwater tardigrade commonly found in the sediments of lakes, rivers, and streams and often in association with microscopic algae on which it feeds.

During the workshop, and over periods of 1-3 hours,  I noticed that the uniform and green soup of tardigrade culture and their green algae food had begun to “coagulate” into green clots. Please see images below.

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A uniform culture of tardigrades and their microscopic green algal food at the beginning of a demonstration.

 

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A culture after 1-3 hours, in which the tardigrades and their microscopic green algal food have “coagulated”.

 

Now this is just a hypothesis at the moment, and I’m happy to be proved either wrong or right but I have a strong  suspicion that the tardigrades here are actually farming or herding their algal food, and may be even moving it towards conditions of optimal growth. In the time-lapse videos below, the tardigrades appear to be “herding” the algae into clumps with their claws, and even moving the algae towards a source of light to better enable the algae to grow.

Below, Tardigrades “herding” algae into clumps?

 

Below, Tardigrades “herding” algae into clumps and moving these?

 

Again, this is just a hypothesis at the moment,  but if correct,  this would add an additional layer to the cuteness of these intriguing creatures,  if they were indeed microscopic farmers or gardeners.

Leaves Returning Once More To Soil: Visualising The NecroPhylloplane

 

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I ran a microbiology and art workshop at the Eden Project earlier this week for around 400 members of their team. The event was  a prelude to Eden’s groundbreaking Invisible Worlds Project which will  explore the world, that we now know, lies beyond our limited human senses. Please follow this link for more information on this unique and important project  Invisible Worlds.

As is the case, everywhere else, unseen microorganisms underpin all of the visible life at the Eden project including not only its plants, but also its visitors and staff.

At this time of year many of the native trees at Eden have shed their leaves,  and the grounds are littered with dead leaves. In turn, when broken down, this leaf litter becomes an important source of energy and carbon that contributes to the health and vitality of soil. Unseen microorganisms, and especially bacteria and fungi,  are amongst the few organisms that secrete enzymes that can break down large leaf  molecules, such as cellulose, chitin, and lignin, into smaller compounds that can be taken up by the soil biota. In a sense then, these  unsung microbes condition the leaf litter to allow it to become a central part of many soil food webs, and without these and their activity,  there would be no soil, or indeed any other life that relies upon it.

So that we could reveal these invisible, yet vital lifeforms, I walked around the site with Rachel Warmington, Eden’s plant pathologist, who collected fallen leaves for me.  In my workshop, members of the Eden Team imprinted these leaves onto Tryptone Soy Agar ( a growth medium for vegetarian bacteria) in order to transfer the invisible leaf microbiota to the agar surface.  Back in the lab, these plates were incubated to allow the bacteria and fungi to grow, and thus to become visible, and so these fallen leave that look to be dead actually aren’t. Vacated by their botanical biochemistry, these leaves are now infused with a vital cocktail of microbial life and activities.  Please see the images below.

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BioSerif: Old Down Wood.

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And so,  I offer a local woodland a simple and truthful statement, made from an ink made from bioluminescent bacteria, and thus ask its manifold and complex networks of life, to respond to the words made from a form of life that underpins all else living on Earth.

Intriguingly,  the organisms that first respond to this microbial message  are the Cryptozoa, tiny near invisible soil creatures that are not quite macroscopic, and yet are not quite microscopic. As they walk over the message, composed of  bioluminescent bacteria, they pick up the bacteria on their feet, and as they move over the surface of the agar, they inoculate the rest of the agar with their foot prints.  When the bioluminescent bacteria subsequently grow within this cryptozoal footfall, they form footprint dependent,  and light emitting trails that seem to add to, and embellish,  my own limited biological font. Thus, these ignored lifeforms become visible,  and then add their own glowing,  and independent,  biological serif to the text  (see images below).

 

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Microcosm/Macrocosm

Microcosm/Microcosm, Microscope/Telescope, Biology/Physics

The microscope gazes inwards to an inner space and reveals the usually invisible tracks of the microorganisms who’s activity underpins all earthly biology. The telescope on the other hand questions space and reveals the more linear and constrained movements of stars, meteors and other celestial bodies.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 45.76 second exposure.

Biology. Tracks made by infusoria. 45.76 second exposure

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 358.37 second exposure.

Physics. Tracks made by stars. 358.37 second exposure

 

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 61.56 second exposure.

Biology. Tracks made by infusoria. 61.56 second exposure

 

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 314.06 second exposure.

Tracks made by stats and a meteor, 314.06 second exposure

The Disturbing Aesthetic of Antimicrobial Resistance: 4 days

“Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. AMR is an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.” (WHO).

The work here is a coloured interpretation of a recent demonstration, and study on the emergence of antibiotic resistance, via evolutionary processes  (The MegaPlate Study).

The purple coloured bacterium is resistant to the antibiotic Cloxacillin and so moves and spreads through the swim agar which is impregnated with the antibiotic. At first the red pigmented bacteria is sensitive to Cloxacillin and so its growth and movement are severely restricted.

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After overnight incubation , purple has advanced and grown through the Cloxacillin containing agar. Red has not.

 

After two days of incubation Cloxacillin resistant purple continues to grow and spread, whilst red is restricted by its Cloxacillin sensitivity.

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After two days incubation Cloxacillin resistant purple has continued to grow and spread whilst sensitive red still fails to prosper.

 

On day three,  purple continues to thrive and spread, but now red has also evolved resistance to Cloxacillin, and so now has begun to grown and spread.

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On day four, both purple and red are fully resistant to Cloxacillin and grow and spread freely in its presence (image below). So it goes and will always go. We live in a world where bacteria have for billions of years, and will continue to do so,  solve complex problems of a biological nature, not for our benefit, but purely theirs.  For me there is a particular fission in this work as Cloxacillin once saved me from a life-threatening bacterial infection.

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We’re Goin’ on a (Water) Bear Hunt

We’re goin’ on a water  bear hunt

(We’re goin’ on a water bear hunt)

We’re going to catch a big one,

(We’re going to catch a big one,) I’m not scared

(I’m not scared)

What a beautiful day!

(What a beautiful day!)

Uh-uh!

The wheel animalcule

Twin buzz sawed filter feeder

Oh no!

We’ve got to hunt some more!

Uh-uh!

A Diatom!

A glass animalcule

A microscopic spaceship glider

Oh no!

We’ve got to hunt some more!

Uh-uh!

A Paramecium!

A slipper animalcule

An invisible darter

Oh no!

We’ve got to hunt some more!

 

Uh-uh!

A Hydra!

The immortal and ageless animalcule

A tiny tentacled stinger

Oh no!

We’ve got to hunt some more!

 

Uh-uh!

WHAT’S THAT!

Short, plump, and fat

Four pairs of legs with sharp sharp claws

Cryptobiotic, space surviver, and the most resilient animal of all

IT’S A WATER BEAR!

 

 

Signatures From A Parallel World

It’s icy cold in the garden today. Most of the higher plants are waiting to renew their relationship with a greater sun and huddled in the needle-less Larch trees above our garden a few Starlings scratch their songs into the cold blue sky. Visible life seems stilled by the cold. Yet, I’m out in the garden with my portable Newton NM1 Microscope looking for signatures of microbial life and its lenses reveal a very different story. In microlitre samples, from collected rainwater in a bucket, and our pond, microscopic life abounds despite the cold temperatures. A ceaseless constant that celebrates and feeds upon a lesser sun. Tracks made by these life forms can be seen below.

The video below was taken on a warmer day.  The Starlings still sing but a Robin and Wood Pigeon are also active. It shows the process happening in real-time and in situ, as the tracks made by the microorganisms emerge, via the microscope, on my iPhone screen. Biological frequencies and wavelengths emerge like particle tracks do in a Cloud Chamber after atomic collisions and I’m wondering if there is some deep connection here between the worlds of physics and biology.

 

Images made at different exposure times can be seen below.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, .

Bucket Water, 39.26 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 53.73 second exposure.

Bucket water, 53.73 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 70.36 second exposure.

Pond water,70.36 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 65.82 second exposure.

Pond water, 65.82 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 144.41 second exposure.

Pond water,144.41 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 51.81 second exposure.

Pond water,51.81 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 68.67 second exposure.

Pond water, 68.67 second exposure.

 

A Bacterial Ophelia: 10 years working at the fertile interface where art and science meet.

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Painting in progress with the living bacterial paints

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element: but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.

Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Act IV, Scene VII

The words above end Ophelia’s tale in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, in which the female character, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream. These very words inspired Sir John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite depiction of the drowning Ophelia which is one of the most visited works at Tate Britain and perhaps the most famous painting ever inspired by Shakespeare.  Ten years ago the same painting became a living portal, which for the first time, introduced me to the interface where art and science meet.  I’ve now worked at this fertile intersection since 2006, and during this period, I’ve collaborated with nearly fifty artists and now also produce my own work. The outcomes of these many projects have featured at such venues as The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Royal Institution, The Science Gallery (Dublin), The Wellcome Collection, The Eden Project, in many news sites and on the BBC One Show.

Millais’ famous painting was basis of a SciArt project, funded by The Wellcome Trust, that was a collaboration between myself (a bacteriologist) and JoWonder, an artist. Our idea was to paint an interpretation of Ophelia, but rather than using traditional paints, to  use living and brightly pigmented bacteria as the paints. By making a striking and beautiful painting from life forms which are usually viewed with repugnance and which generally evoke disgust, our aim was to challenge the public perception of bacteria. There is also a powerful dichotomy in this work, that is, in the fact that a character that is so famously dead, is represented by usually invisible  life forms that are so vibrantly alive and which also underpin all other visible life on our planet.

The palette of pigmented bacteria used to paint Ophelia can be seen below.

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Streak plate cultures of the living bacterial paints used to paint Ophelia

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Single colonies of the pigmented bacteria used as living paints in the Ophelia painting

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Single colonies of the pigmented bacteria used as living paints in the Ophelia painting

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A close up image of the purple living bacterial paint

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A close up image of the black living bacterial paint

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A close up image of the red living bacterial paint

 

 

Pond Scum: fantastic micro beasts/biological frequencies and wavelengths

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Accumulated rain water in my garden.

 

Many people would call the biological material above  scum or slime, and with derogatory intention. However, a simple and portable microscope, reveals an unescapable reality, that exists beyond the resolution of the human eye. These are dynamic and thriving ecologies in which fantastic microbeasts at micrometre scale  move with intent and purpose, hunt,  and much like us  can decide whether life is getting or worse and respond to this.  Every watery realm, be it a lake, a pond, a puddle, or a humble pool of accumulated water at the base of plant pots (as above) teems with such microscopic life. Please see the videos below for examples of the life in this plant pot pool.

 

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 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. Observed in this way,  the life in a simple pool of collected rainwater generates an accumulation of  biological wavelengths and frequencies, demonstrating that our world vibrates to these usually invisible energies. Please see the images below for examples of these:

195.74 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 183.76 second exposure.

183.76 second exposure

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 145.03 second exposure.

145.03 second exposure

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 161.85 second exposure.

161.85 second exposure

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 19.45 second exposure.

19.45 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 15.11 second exposure.

15.11 second exposure

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 85.58 second exposure.

85.58 second exposure