It may seem odd at first to link bacteria and art, bacteria are more often associated with disease and decay. Yet most people who work with these organisms will have seen something beautiful emerging in petri dishes or under the microscope, some have even used this as inspiration for works of art.
Alexander Fleming was one of the first, creating sketch-like miniatures in petri dishes. As a self-taught painter his ’bacteria art’ may not be the most technically artistic images you will ever see, but when you consider the detail of his pieces the depth of dedication and skill involved becomes clear. This was an era before science had the ability to genetically express fluorescent proteins or engineer colours. Every colour Fleming used was reliant on his discovery of natural bacteria strains that formed colonies that appeared that shade in his dish. And for an ensemble of colonies to come together to form a cohesive image required strains that grew at roughly the same rate. It was this attention to detail, argues Rob Dunn of the Smithsonian, that allowed Fleming to notice the antibacterial effects of Penicillin when fungi invaded his cultures – a discovery of which went on to save the lives of millions.
Fleming’s art, and that of many others who have followed him, is fleeting. The art exists for the short time period in which the bacterial cultures have replicated enough to fill their allotted space but have not yet overtaken their boundaries and blurred the lines of the image. A reminder, perhaps, of the speed in which bacteria can replicate and influence their surroundings.
To overcome the transient nature of this medium, artist Amy Chase Gulden uses bacterial plates to print individual works of art. Chase Gulden and scientist Dr. Kristen Baldwin genetically modified E. coli bacteria to produce a deep blue pigment. Dilute solutions of this E. coli culture are painted onto agar plates and once the cultures have grown and the patterns exposed prints are taken onto thick paper and preserved using resin. These unique works of art are not only beautiful, but their production process is a wonderful tool for teaching others the science behind bacterial colony growth, proteins and even genetic manipulation.
It seems that artists the world over have caught the bacterial bug. A recent search of Etsy, a website dedicated to showcasing independently produced goods, found some amazing items, including petri dish soaps, bacterium earrings and even plate inspired water colours.