Synthetic Miracles I: The Mass at Bolsena

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Media: Communion Wafer, and Serratia marecescens 

This is the first in a new series of works that replicate miracles, in the context  of our modern understanding of biology and recent advances in the biosciences like Synthetic Biology.

The Mass at Bolsena is a painting by the Italian renaissance artist Raphael that was  painted between 1512 and 1514  as part of Raphael’s commission to decorate,  with frescoes,  the rooms of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

The painting  depicts an Eucharistic miracle that is said to have taken place in 1263 at the church of Santa Cristina in Bolsena. A Bohemian priest who doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation, was celebrating mass at Bolsena, when the bread of the eucharist began to bleed. The blood then  fell onto the tablecloth in the shape of a cross and he was reconverted. The blood stained Corporal of Bolsena is still venerated as a major relic in the Orvieto Cathedral.

Given its blood red growth, and predilection for starchy foods, it is likely that the miraculous blood appearance of blood here was due to the growth of the bacterium Serratia marcesens in the damp and warm environment of the church of Santa Cristina.

Below this miracle is recreated in the laboratory using a communion wafer and Serratia marcescens.

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The blood red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens growing on Plate Count Agar.

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The communion wafer before inoculation with the bacterium Serratia marcescens

 

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Blood Miracle? The communion wafer after inoculation with the blood red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens after 12 hours  incubation at 25 C. The inoculation was invisible at first but here the bacterium has grown and moved through the wafer curiously following the imprinted cross. 

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Blood Miracle? The communion wafer after inoculation with the blood red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens after 24 hours incubation at 25 C. The inoculation was invisible at first but here the bacterium has grown and moved throughout the wafer.

Black Forest From Above (2017) Media: Streptomyces coelicolor, Yeast Malt Extract Broth

BlackForest

This work reflects the apparently fractal nature of biology and its complex interconnections. What might be seen as a forest from above is a black culture (blackened by the production of pigments by the bacteria) of the soil bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor which actually resides beneath the forest, where it plays an essential ecological role in the turnover of organic material.

Streptomyces also produce a secondary metabolite called geosmin (meaning “earth smell”), a bacterial product which gives soil its characteristic earthy smell, and gives an indication of just how widespread and ubiquitous these bacteria are in the soil.

More recently, it has been shown that streptomycetes are able to live in symbiosis with plants and other organisms, and it is likely that many of the secondary metabolites produced by Streptomyces species, like geosmin, mediate their  interactions with other organisms.

 

 

Invisible Worlds

The images here represent the tracks made by infusoria as seen using a microscope at 200-times magnification. Through this process the microscopic creatures are revealed as biological wavelengths and frequencies. The images were taken over a period of a year and at many different locations in the UK. I’m struck by the incredible diversity between the sites and by the defining biological energy that each microcosm presents.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 26.77 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 56.26 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 57.29 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 142.24 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 183.76 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 145.03 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 29.73 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 45.76 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 79.29 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 61.56 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 57.90 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 69.66 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 72.76 second exposure.

Synthetic Biologies: Winogradsky Systems for the Anthropocene

SynPetri

A Synthetic Winogradsky System powered by plastic

It’s not about deliberately designing life, but politely asking bacterial life to solve our problems. After all, they have had an unmatchable head start. Billions of years of evolutionary history has endowed bacteria with a time-tested ability to solve ecological problems

The Winogradsky Column is a simple device for culturing environmental bacteria and other microorganisms,  and forms an elegant means of demonstrating their vast diversity and complex interactions. Invented in the 1880s by Sergei Winogradsky, the device comprises a column of pond mud that has been fortified with a carbon source and a sulphur source. The column is exposed to sunlight for a period of months to years, during which nutrient gradients form that promote the growth of different microorganisms.

In the art work here, I have updated Winogradsky’s system to reflect our 21st century and new anthropogenic environment, and consequently the appearance of a ubiquitous and widespread synthetic food source for bacteria and other microbes, namely plastic. In these new Winogradsky Systems there is a source of minerals but  the only source of  carbon is plastic that I have collected from beaches and ground down. Consequently,  for a biological ecosystem to form,  at least some members of the consortia must be able to break down the plastic to release the carbon present for use by themselves, and other members of the ecology. In a sense then, I’ve  provided the conditions for a natural yet unnatural  selection, and a selective environment that should isolate plastic consuming ecologies.

After six months of incubation in the back garden, an ecosystem that appears to thrive on plastic has come into being reflecting my belief that,  given their ability to acclimate, adapt and evolve at by far the highest rate of all organisms, that microorganisms and bacteria will be central to our ability to solve many of the ecological crises that our planet now faces. In addition, with the advent of emerging genetic technologies like CRISPR taking the limelight at the moment, this processes re-empahsizes the vast power and untapped potential of this ancient and time-tested biology. The activity of this dark ecology can be seen in the images below.

345.11 second exposure.

345.11 second exposure.

165.12 second exposure.

165.12 second exposure.

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233.08 second exposure.

In order to capture the activity of the microorganisms in the ecosystem (above),  I’ve developed a novel process, that rather than recording the movement of the microbial cells in real-time, captures the motion paths taken by microscopic creatures under the microscope (200-times magnification). Consequently, the images generated result from the accumulation of the activity tracks of these usually invisible life forms and this reveals the hugely complicated dynamic of their manifold activities and interactions within the plastic powered ecosystem. These microscopic activities, generated by the biological decay of plastic resemble the particle trails generated by radioactive decay, as seen in a bubble or cloud chamber, and suggest a deep and underlying symmetry at work. Carbon is also an unchanging constant here, a chemical currency that connects the lifeless and the living, and the natural and synthetic, reminding us that the oil that was exploited for the production of this plastic is entirely natural and was produced with the aid of ancient biological processes.

The processes at work here have generated life from plastic, and taken an inanimate form of carbon and made it vital again, without changing its actual physical identity,  but resetting its context. Without our modern scientific understanding, this phenomenon could easily be interpreted as spontaneous generation, an old scientific dogma that was discredited by the early microbiologists so there is symmetry in time here too. Finally, the video below is a time-lapse of  the ecology taken at 200-times magnification and reveals this ecology at work.

 

Ballet Infusoriae: MicroChoreography

As we experience unprecedented environmental impacts from climate change, microbes rapidly adapt to their surrounding conditions faster than other organisms. Because microbes control biogeochemical cycling of elements essential for life, this impacts every ecosystem on earth. In addition, these changes alter the transmission of plant, animal, and human disease.

Ballet Infusoriae. A time-lapse of a few scant micro litres of pond water from my garden showing photosynthetic microorganisms as they respond to light (above).

Observed under a microscope in real-time its difficult to discern purpose in the movements of the infusoria (an old and poetic term for microorganisms) so I use two processes to reveal this and to add an important non-scientific aesthetic to the works. The first process uses time-lapse at 200-times magnification to reveal the complex movements and interactions of the microbes and to uncover a complex and elegant microscopic ballet. Here the photographic microbes accumulate in the field of view as they respond to, and are attracted to, the light that I use to illuminate them for observation. In one sense here,  I am very much reminded of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the fact that the act of observation affects the particle being observed, in that the microbes here are responding to the light the I use to observe them. In another sense, this phototactic, response gives me the opportunity to choreograph the movement of this massively important domain of life.

The second process that I’ve developed for observing microorganisms, 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 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. In the images below I have choreographed the movement of photosynthetic infusoria by changing the direction of the source of light (to the left of the images below) and recorded their activity (over a period of 19 minutes)  as they move towards it and away from darkness.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 26.77 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 26.29 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 26.28 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 25.97 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 37.94 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 30.51 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 25.87 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 36.61 second exposure.

 

Invisible Worlds: the MicroPopulous of London I.

Man and his works perish, but the monuments of the infusoriae are the flinty ribs of the sea, the giant bones of huge continents, heaped into mountain-ranges over which the granite and porphyry have set their stony seal for ever. Man thrives in his little zone: the populous infusoriae crowd every nook of earth from the remote poles to the burning equatorial belt.” Will Wallace Harney

Microorganisms in a few scant micro litres of water from the Boating Lake, Regent’s Park, revealed by the motion tracks that they make at 200-times magnification (above). 

There is a form of life, that in terms of numbers and activity, dwarfs all else in our capital city. We share our city with this life but rarely consider it, yet it underpins everything that lives in London including ourselves. This life is not animal, and is not even  the invertebrates that make up between 95 and 97 percent of all animal species on Earth. This life is microscopic, and the microorganisms which inhabit this usually invisible world make up a significant part of the Earth’s biomass.

It’s easy for us to overlook this microscopic life because of it’s diminutive size and our unconscious macroscopic bias. Here though it’s not size that matters but numbers and activity, and thus in many ways the impact of this invisible world dwarfs the biology that we can see with our unaided eyes. We can choose ignore this domain of life, but we will never extricate ourselves from it as its energies permeate through everything else that lives and even our cities as here. As our activities change our planet, this vast realm of invisible life is responding and adapting, and will in turn influence dramatically the process of change in ways we are only just starting to understand.

The work here is the beginning of a new project which seeks to explore and reveal this usually hidden microbiology in the familiar setting of our nation’s capital city. On my first such outing I visited Regents Park, one of the eight Royal Parks.

The Urban skyline at The Regent’s Park

The green waters of a fountain. My first sampling point

My first sampling point was a fountain (above) whose green water suggested populations for photosynthetic microbes. I took a few micro litres of water from this fountain at observed it a 200-times magnification using my Newton Nm1 Portable field microscope (below).

The Newton Nm1 portable field microscope being used in situ at The Regent’s Park. On the grass next to the Japanese Garden. Attached is an iPhone 6 for recording images/videos.

Observed under a microscope in real-time its difficult to discern purpose in the movements of the infusoria (an old and poetic term for microorganisms) so I use two processes to reveal this and to add an important non-scientific aesthetic to the works. The first process uses time-lapse at 200-times magnification to reveal the  complex movements and interactions of the microbes and to uncover a complex and elegant  microscopic ballet.

Ballet Infusoriae. A time-lapse of a few scant micro litres of water from The Regent’s Park fountain, reveals an elegant and complex microbial ballet (below)

The second process that I’ve developed, 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 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.The tracks remind me very much of the tracks made by atomic particle collisions, and radioactive decay, as recorded in cloud and bubble chambers, and whilst London’s human inhabitants go about their daily lives, the city vibrates to this incalculable frenzy of invisible biological wavelengths and frequencies (below).

Microorganisms in a few scant micro litres of water from the Fountain, Regent’s Park, revealed by the motion tracks that they make at 200-times magnification (below).

142.24 second exposure.

142.24 second exposure.

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158.78 second exposure.

55.12 second exposure.

55.12 second exposure.

 

The next sampling site was the Boating Lake.

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A few ducks and seagulls represent the visible life inhabiting the Boating Lake.

 

Ballet Infusoriae. A time-lapse of a few scant micro litres of water from The Regent’s Park Boating Lake, reveals an elegant and complex microbial ballet (below)

 

Microorganisms in a few scant micro litres of water from the Boating Lake, Regent’s Park, revealed by the motion tracks that they make at 200-times magnification (below).

90.32 second exposure.

90.32 second exposure.

71.62 second exposure.

71.62 second exposure.

65.66 second exposure.

65.66 second exposure.

55.29 second exposure.

55.29 second exposure.

 

And the final sampling point was the lake at the Japanese Garden.

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Four ducks represent the visible life inhabiting the lake at the Japanese Garden.

 

Ballet Infusoriae. A time-lapse of a few scant micro litres of water from lake at the Japanese Garden Regent’s Park  reveals an elegant and complex microbial ballet (below).

 

And finally here is an example video of the motion tracks appearing in real-time the iPhone connected to the Newton portable field microscope.

 

Ballet Infusoriae

Man and his works perish, but the monuments of the infusoriae are the flinty ribs of the sea, the giant bones of huge continents, heaped into mountain-ranges over which the granite and porphyry have set their stony seal for ever. Man thrives in his little zone: the populous infusoriae crowd every nook of earth from the remote poles to the burning equatorial belt.” Will Wallace Harney

These are sub micro litre samples of three natural waters. Observed under a microscope in real-time its difficult to discern purpose in the movements of the infusoria. Here though at 200-times magnification, and using time-lapse,  their complex movements and interactions are revealed. A microscopic ballet as complex as any macroscopic natural spectacle.