pCouture: BioFunctional Design

When bacteria grow as colonies on agar, most form circular forms that are cream or    off-white in colour.  An occasional bacterial species though will grow as a vividly coloured colony. In 2016,  I collected a unique palette (16 different bacteria) of living bacterial colour (see images below) which were used by artist JoWonder to paint an interpretation of John Millais’  famous pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia”.

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

As a source of natural colour there is an obvious link to the use of these  bacteria in other art and design speculations where colour is important, for  example in their use to provide textile designs or dyes for clothing.  What is not often appreciated here though, is that these bacterial pigments aren’t just simple replacements for synthetic dyes, because bacteria produce these chemicals for other purposes,  and they just accidentally happen to be colourful to our eyes. In this sense then, these bacterially generated compounds offer far more than just  colour to the world of materials and  textiles. Yes, they do provide vivid  colour but they can also imbue materials with additional functionalities far beyond what conventional synthetic dyes offer. I’ve called this BioFunctionality, and an example of this  concept follows.

Kocuria rhizophila, formerly known as Micrococcus luteus, is a very common yellow pigmented human skin inhabitant that has adapted to be able to survive in this unexpectedly harsh environment.

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An agar plate with a culture of the yellow pigmented skin bacterium Kocuria rhizophila

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A flowery design made from the yellow pigmented skin bacterium Kocuria rhizophila.

 

Like human skin is, bacteria are also susceptible to the damaging effects of Ultraviolet light (UV) and so exposed to sunlight on a daily basis K. rhizophila synthesises a pigment that absorbs wavelengths of light from 350 to 475 nm. This pigment then absorbs damaging UV light and protects this bacterium from its bactericidal effects. Exposure to these wavelengths of UV, commonly referred to as UVA, has also been correlated with an increased incidence of skin cancer, and so textiles dyed with this bacterium, in addition to being a vivid yellow would possess a BioFunctional sunscreen that would protect the wearer against UVA. Coming soon a BioFunctional and yellow tee-shirt for summer………

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A textile swatch impregnated with the yellow pigmented bacterium Kocuria rhizophila. The red colour is due to a second red pigmented bacterium called Serratia. marcescens. The white ring surrounding the yellow pigmented bacterium is due to Kocuria rhizophila producing an unidentified antibiotic which inhibits the red pigmented bacterium and reveals an additional layer of BioFunctionality.

The Art of Resistance

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A purple and red pigmented bacterium move and swarm through cotton fabric to colour it. The top half of the fabric is impregnated with the antibiotic Cloxacillin. Purple is resistant to Cloxacillin so moves into this section of the fabric without a problem. Red however, is sensitive to Cloxacillin and initially cannot move into the antibiotic zone. It is though beginning to evolve resistance to Cloxacillin…….

Polkerris Beach, Cornwall: Microscopic/Macroscopic

Polkerris Beach Cornwall. The Macroscopic view, 25th January 2017

 

On the way back from a microbiology workshop, that I recently ran for The Eden Project, I stopped off at Polkerriss Beach with my portable, with the hope of revealing another layer of reality that exists beyond the resolution of the human eye.

I began by examining beach sand at 100-times magnification and revealed small slivers of rock,  and minute fragments of shell that make up the sand.

Polkerris beach sand at 100-times magnification

 

I then also collected micro-litre samples of water from the sea itself, and also from briny rock pools and recorded the tracks made by microscopic organisms that inhabit the sea and which underpin all other life that exists in the Earth’s oceans.

Tracks made by microscopic seawater organisms

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.62 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 27.05 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 17.23 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 7.12 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 60.59 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro

 

Tracks made by microscopic organisms found in a rockpool

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 6.89 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.68 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 10.17 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 18.73 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.62 second exposure.

I’m struck by the differences between the images made from seawater and those from rock pool water, and how these microcosms reflect the macroscopic. The images produced by the cold and grey seawater are very different to those generated by water from a vibrant and colourful rock pool.

I’ve used this same process to reveal microscopic life in my own garden, and in buckets of collected rainwater, and here there is a far greater level of microbial activity compared to those above.

Tracks made by microscopic organisms found in a bucket of collected rainwater in my garden. Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 45.76 second exposure.

Biology. Tracks made by infusoria. 45.76 second exposure

 

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