Creative microbiology

Jacob Hamilton looks at the intersection of microbiology and art and how that can bring wisdom to both areas. 

Not long ago I was invited to attend this year’s Voice of the Future event. One thing that really stood out to me from VotF was something said by Carol Monaghan, MP for Glasgow North West and member of the Science and Technology Committee, about creativity in science. She spoke about how we don’t teach creativity to children and teenagers in science classes, which could be limiting our creative research.

I think scientists have to show creativity constantly, whether you’re writing a research grant for your latest work in astrobiology to turn astronaut pee into space food. Or your evolutionary biology study accidentally improves the enzyme you’re studying, you have to be creative to be a good scientist.

Finding Fleming

Alexander Fleming is heralded as the discoverer of penicillin, but it’s less well known that he was a member of the Chelsea Art Club where he painted in watercolours… and microbes. He did this by drawing bacteria onto agar with his loop and growing it, relying on the pigments the bacteria produced to provide colour.

Today, this has evolved into The American Microbiology Society’s annual Agar Art competitions, which are great as a public engagement tool as well as giving us an excuse to have some fun in the lab!


‘This is not a Beer’ by Mariarosaria Marinaro, Erika Grandolfo, Cristiana Catella and Livia Bodnar

‘This is not a Beer’ by Maria Marinaro, Erika Grandolfo, Cristiana Catella + Livia Bodnar

A variety of art is submitted, with everything from pints of beer (with catalase to make foam) to multi-plate coral reefs, highlighting the importance of bacteria in coral bleaching. The range of submissions – all created by carefully drawing bacteria onto different types of agar – show that scientists can come up with some really exciting and novel ideas.

2nd place at ASM’s 2016 Agar Art and ‘Finding Pneumo: Starring Klebsiella pneumonia’  by Ligh Ngo won 2nd place in 2017

ASM’s 2016 Agar Art and ‘Finding Pneumo: Starring Klebsiella pneumonia’  by Ligh Ngo 

Cover stars

SfAM also runs its own image competition – the largest of its kind in the UK. Although it’s less focused on agar, it shows an impressive array of creativity from microbiologists. These images are more than a bit of fun, they can be inspirations and bring public attention to the field.

The images can also highlight specific issues, such as this scanning electron microscope image of Salmonella inside a lettuce leaf, ready to infect those who don’t wash their veg!

'What Lurks Beneath' SfAM’s 2015 image competition winner by Paula Bourke + Dana Zuizina, Dublin Institute of Technology

‘What Lurks Beneath’ SfAM’s 2015 image competition winner by Paula Bourke + Dana Zuizina, Dublin Institute of Technology

Leftover love

Some scientists become full-time artists. For example, Dr Isabelle Desjeux has a PhD in molecular biology from Edinburgh University but now spends most of her time making art from the leftovers of science – the failures.

Most of us ignore our failed experiments and focus on the wins, but Isabelle thrives on it. She studies the failures and shortcomings of science to better understand the scientific method and the ethics of science – or ‘failomics’ as she calls it.

One of her pieces, titled Duo, made in collaboration with Andrée Weschler, is a thought-provoking piece where scenes of the inside of a person undergoing surgery are interrupted by scientists talking emotionlessly about how failure is always acceptable. More recently, Isabelle has been running L’Observatoire a place for artists to experiment and scientists to see how children and teachers interact and question the science of the art.

Dr Isabelle Desjeux

Dr Isabelle Desjeux

Fermenting the future

On the flip side, artists attempting science can also produce some great work. Christine Ryan did an excellent piece on this blog not long ago, where she described how she was experimenting with growing a fabric from kombucha using bacteria and yeast.

By playing around with the sugars and tea she uses, she can change the properties of the fabrics, all of which are sustainable, and very much in keeping with the scientific method. While she may not publish any peer-reviewed papers, the work she is doing is defiantly research, which makes her a scientist in my book. Currently, she’s experimenting with how salt concentrations effect the fermentation process, watching the patterns and textures that form.

Although her studio may not be as controlled as a lab in terms of temperature, humidity and all the other details we like to control, she is constantly changing her methods to see how the bacteria and yeast are effected and how that changes the fabrics they produce.
Christine’s fabrics can have a range of properties depending how she varies the conditions it’s fermented in.

kombucha clothing drying

Word play

Jenna Sutela is another artist working with kombucha fermentation, but this time from the perspective of the bacteria themselves. Jenna created a video titled Am-Gut (the microbial breakdown of language) where she recorded bacteria in the fermentation process through a microscope and used a computer to convert the movements of molecules into words.

The video gives a perspective even those of us working with bacteria rarely see, the random movement of enzymes and molecules that make the interesting proteins or chemicals we’re so intent on studying, a reminder that at the end of the day all of these reactions critical to our research, and life itself, are due to random chance.

Art of the matter

As I was writing this piece, I started to think; do we even need art to show scientists are creative? Think about the latest developments in microbiology; using the bacterial ‘immune system’ to alter the genes of embryos, using phages to fight infections, and making self-healing buildings with bacteria.

All of these were built from hundreds of creative ideas from hundreds of scientists, making up experiments that even a few years ago would have sounded ridiculous. Now, through the creative thinking of scientists, we’ve gained more knowledge, new pieces of technology and improved people’s lives. Art is important, but I do begin to question if art is the only way of expressing creativity – why can’t a peer reviewed paper?

Jacob Hamilton







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