Throughout my career as a microbiologist I have been endlessly fascinated by the power and complexity of the vast microbiological domain of life, which I very much see as the predominate form of life on Earth. My work over the past 10 years has sought to explore the inherent creativity of this world and to reveal its usually hidden yet hugely important narratives. My hope is that my projects will allow the interested observer to perceive and appreciate biological phenomena that would otherwise be perpetually invisible, so that the hidden machinations of the natural world are brought to light. In much of my work, I see microorganisms, and other natural processes, as co-creators in the aesthetic process, with my role being to provide the necessary and suitable initial conditions, which then subsequently allow the works to grow and flourish, so that the art itself is generated by autogenic processes that better reflect Nature. The following article describes a thread of evolving and related projects, within this body of work, that led to a series of works called the “Autogenic Self Portraits: the microbiomial paintings”, which explore the human microbiome.
This current work has it’s origins in a Wellcome Trust funded art project that took place nearly 10 years ago now in which artist JoWonder and myself recreated a version of John Millais’ pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia made entirely out of living and naturally pigmented bacteria (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/picture-of-the-weekophelia-microbial-art-19953881/?no-ist). Our idea was to raise the concept of an apparently beautiful painting being constructed by living organisms that in most people normally invoke disgust, that is bacteria. The extensive palette of naturally pigmented bacteria collected for this project, and which for example contains bacteria able to grow as red, blue, green, yellow, purple, pink and orange coloured colonies, can be seen in below (Figure 1).
This unique collection of living pigments has been used in many workshops for artists and the next development in its use happened in November 2012, when artist Sarah Roberts (http://www.sarahroberts.net/) visited the lab. Sarah was interested in finding out how my living pigments (the bacteria) would interact with her more traditional watercolours and so she painted a series of separate shapes onto an agar surface. We then embellished her designs with a living red pigment, the bacterium Serratia marcescens. When we returned in the morning, and after the paintings had been incubated overnight to allow the bacteria to grow, we were astonished to discover that the bacteria had swarmed all over the agar surface and had actually moved the watercolours around the medium transforming Sarah’s paintings completely (Figures 2-5).
In doing so, the bacteria had converted a relatively simply painting into something far more dynamic and complex, and having in a sense themselves become the “painters”. The new and vibrant art that emerges is clearly autogenic and is also a direct expression of the otherwise invisible activity of the bacteria. The “paintings” are also a manifestation of our current scientific understanding of the complexity of bacterial behaviour, and reflect how they swarm, communicate, move together in a coordinated manner, and build channels to irrigate large bacterial communities. In another unexpected and unique development, Sarah’s watercolour paints also contained their own hidden and indigenous bacterial microflora, and when the pigments containing this were painted onto the bacteriological growth media, these bacteria grew too into colonies, and in doing so, added an additional autogenic dimension to the work and also brought Sarah’s own paints to life (Figures 6-8).
It appears that the ability to “paint” is not a common bacterial trait, as I have since searched for other bacteria with the ability to do this but I have found that only Serratia marcescens and one other bacterium called Proteus mirabilis can do this. Unlike Serratia however, Proteus is itself colourless and when mixed with blue watercolour it moves the pigment around very much like Serratia does, but its designs appear to be much more angular and sharper (Figure 9).
The most recent evolution of this series of projects connects the processes outlined above to our modern and emerging understanding of the human microbiome. 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 microbiome), containing 100 trillion normally invisible cells, and 2 million microbial genes, dwarfs our eukaryotic genetics and physiology. In addition to this, recent studies are now beginning to reveal the huge impact of the microbiome on our health, and even its ability to modulate our own moods and behaviour.
In the context of the above, the “Autogenic Self Portraits: the microbiomial paintings”project stems from 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, would have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work, in terms of its influence on the mood or health of the artist. In these works, I gave this usually invisible aspect of ourselves the opportunity to “paint” for itself, and away from my conscious intervention. In order to achieve this, and much like the processes described above for Serratia and Proteus, bacteria from my own microbiome were mixed with traditional watercolours (red, blue and green) and incubated on bacteriological growth media to allow them to interact with paints. This diverse and massively complex population bacteria also “painted” but for me in a much more personal sense, as they are part of my own microbiome, and thus an aspect of myself (Figures 10-12). The resulting “paintings” are thus unique self-portraits, being direct manifestation of the power, activity, and complexity of my other bacterial self.
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