Synthetic Biologies: Winogradsky Systems for the Anthropocene


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.

233.08 second exposure.

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.


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