I am currently exploring Helion 15 (a unique photosynthetic biomaterial fashioned from little more than sunlight and air) with conceptual women’s wear designer Victoria Geaney (Royal College of Art).
We are currently characterising this exciting and unique biomaterial as it forms symbiotic relationships with traditional textiles. As it grows on these textiles. the organism not only infiltrates the fabric fibres and makes the material photosynthetic, but it also moves beyond the material and onto the surface that holds it making it difficult to determine where the manmade material ends and where the purely biological organism begins.
We are pleased to announce yet another addition to C-MOULD, the world’s largest collection of microorganisms for use in art and design, as part of the new microbial gastronomy section.
Monascus purpureus is filamentous fungus noted for its role in the production of red yeast rice (RYR), a traditional fermented food in East Asian areas with a history documented back to the Han dynasty (BC 202-AD 220) in China. Recent studies have shown that this organism is able to produce abundant beneficial secondary metabolites, such as monacolin (a statin) K, γ -amino butyric acid (an antihypertensive), and dimerumic acid (an antioxidant). Monacolin K is a statin and lowers serum cholesterol levels by inhibiting HMG–CoA reductase, the rate-limiting step for cholesterol synthesis in the liver.
The active ingredient in Merck’s prescription only statin Mevacor, lovastatin, is actually identical to monacolin K, the natural statin produced by Monascus purpureus. Consequently, availability of this fungus through C-MOULD, gives people the opportunity to grow and produce powerful cholesterol lowering drugs in the comfort of their own homes.
Finally, it also smells divine, a blend of yeasty and orangey aromas.
I spat onto a microscope slide and observed it at 1000x magnification with a Differential Interference contrast microscope to reveal a world of biological wonder.
Buccal epithelial cells from my cheek mucosa float by. The nuclei (defined round structures within the cell) hold my genome, and thus the genetic makeup for my entire body. The much smaller circle and rod shapes are bacteria from my human microbiota, a small selection of the billions of bacteria that I share my body with.
Buccal cells again but the round cell towards the middle (again with a clearly visible nucleus) is a neutrophil. This white blood cell forms part of my innate immune system and they quickly congregate at a focus of infection in order to kill invading pathogens. Neutrophils play a key role in the front line defence against bacteria and can kill pathogens by phagocytosis (ingestion), degranulation (release of antibacterial compounds) and neutrophil extracellular traps (networks of fibres made mostly from DNA)
A cluster of neutrophils (towards bottom right) fizzing with antibacterial intent. Neutrophils are a type of cell called a granulocyte as they clearly have granules in their cytoplasm. These granules contain antimicrobial cocktails that are used to kill pathogens. Low counts of neutrophils are termed neutropenia, a condition that makes individuals highly susceptible to infection. Neutropenia, can be congenital, a result of various blood disorders, or induced as a side effect of chemotherapy.
C-MOULD is the world’s largest collection of microorganisms for use in art and design, with over 50 different kinds of microorganism. It contains bacteria bacteria and fungi that glow in ethereal shades of green and blue light, bacteria that make gold and electrically conductive nanowires, and bacteria that produce novel biomaterials.
We are pleased to welcome three new species into the collection.
An autotrophic and photosynthetic cyanobacterium. Will grow and produce biomaterials from little more than sunlight and air, and because it possess self-weaving filaments, it automatically forms thick green mats.
Originally isolated from a salt marsh, Vibrio natriegens is a free living bacterium with the fastest generation time known (< 10 minutes). The recombinant DNA technologies that have revolutionised biomedical research are mostly reliant on E. coli, which has a lengthy growth rate that consumes experimental time. Because of this, Vibrio natriegens is likely to become a new genomic powerhouse that will rapidly drive synthetic biology, and through this, will usher in a new era of advanced biotechnology.
Photobacterium leiognathi 2134
Image not great but impressive nevertheless as it was taken with an iPhone.
Photobacterium leiognathi is a species of bioluminescent (light emitting) bacteria that forms a symbiotic relationship with a Ponyfish. The bacteria reside in a luminous organ in the throat of the fish, which is able to project light through the animal’s underside. The bacterium is described as strongly bioluminescent and is widely used as a demonstration of bioluminescence. C-MOULD also contains another strongly bioluminescent bacterium called Photobacterium phosphoreum HB, and so the two bacteria will be compared with reference to their light out put, with one perhaps being crowned as the brightest bioluminescent bacterium in the world.
We’re developing ways to change pigment/antibiotic production in Streptomyces coelicolor by inducing changes in gene expression (see images above, identical bacterial strains but different inducers present). This is not for scientific reasons but purely for aesthetic ones, and I’m guessing that this may be a form of phenotypic art.
This bacterium is a ubiquitous inhabitant of soils, where it plays a vital role in degradation and recycling of decaying natural material. These bacteria are also adept at manipulating human senses, as they emit a compound called geosmin, that is largely responsible for the intoxicating smell of woodlands in autumn and petrichor, the distinctive and beguiling aroma that accompanies the first heavy rain after a dry spell. The lab is infused with this odour.
Streptomycetes are also characterised by a very complex secondary metabolism and they produce over two-thirds of the clinically useful antibiotics of natural origin. Viewed under the microscope (see below), they form complex forms, and it’s easy to imagine these as bacterial or alien cities.
Traditionally, what we consider to be “self” is usually restricted to the collection of 40 trillion or so eukaryote cells that derive directly from the 22,000 genes of our own human genome. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century are radically redefining the view that we have of ourselves, 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, our bacterial aspect (the microbiota and microbiome), containing maybe as many as 100 trillion normally invisible cells, and 2 million microbial genes, is at the very least equal to our eukaryotic genetics and activity.
The microbiota associated with the human body is undoubtedly vast in terms of numbers, but a number of recent studies have begun to reveal its importance in for our health too. Bacteria in the gut, for example, have been shown to be capable of influencing the production of neuroactive substances such as serotonin. Moreover in animal models, it has been shown that bacteria play a crucial role in inducing abnormal behaviours like anxiety and depression. It seems very likely then that our microbiota, similarly, plays a role in modulating our own behaviour, and so this work stems my thought that for every artist, either living today, or dead, that the body’s microbiome, that is its invisible hundreds of trillions of bacterial cells, could have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work, in terms of influencing the mood or health of the artist. In response to this, I decided to give this usually invisible aspect of myself the opportunity to paint, and to express itself, away from my conscious intervention. In order to do this, I isolated bacteria from my own microbiota and mixed these with traditional watercolours (red, green and blue). Left overnight, in a warm incubator set to human body temperature (37 C), the bacteria grow, travel, and interact with the paints, and thus move the watercolours around the medium, similar to the way that an artist might paint. The paintings are thus unique self-portraits, being a direct manifestation of the power, activity and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings were produced by the bacteria from my hand, gut and mouth.