| All images courtesy of microbialart.com and copyrighted by the individual artists.

Credit: Niall Hamilton | Image Permalink

Credit: Niall Hamilton | Image Permalink

Credit: Niall Hamilton | Image Permalink

Credit: Susan Boafo | Image Permalink

Credit: Susan Boafo | Image Permalink

Credit: JoWonder | Image Permalink

Credit: T. Ryan Gregory | Image Permalink

Credit: T. Ryan Gregory | Image Permalink

Credit: Eshel Ben-Jacob | Image Permalink

Credit: Eshel Ben-Jacob | Image Permalink

Life Imitating Life

By Greg Boustead / January 28, 2010

Life, as the expression goes, isn’t always pretty. And this is typically true all the way down to the microscopic level. But with a few tricks of the lab, life in its simplest, single-celled forms—bacteria, yeast, fungi, protists—can be precisely manipulated into a thing of preternatural beauty. The practice of making art from microbes isn’t new—Sir Alexander Fleming, the father of penicillin, used pigments from living bacteria to create elaborate paintings in the early 1900s. But the aesthetic side-projects of today’s researchers-cum-artists are becoming increasingly more experimental and radical. Advancements in biotechnology are broadening nature’s palette with new colors, florescence, and media. As part of this movement, evolutionary biologist T. Ryan Gregory collaborated with Niall Hamilton, an industrial biologist who has been making colorful images with bacteria and fungi since 2003, and microbialart.com was born. The site acts as a repository to capture a growing number of ephemeral pieces—living works, which ultimately overgrow their desired forms and die. “One can put significant effort into creating a piece, only to destroy it a few days later,” says Gregory. “It’s both amazing and tragic in a very intriguing way.”

A Rose by Another Name
Niall Hamilton

Here, the fungal plant pathogen Cladosporium herbarum forms a stem and leaf instead of attacking them, and the yeast Rhodotorula produces garish red pedals.

Seeing Pink Elephants
Niall Hamilton

Aureobasidium pullulans spores offer up their pink hue to create this “hallucination in a Petri dish.” But don’t worry, it’ll pass—specifically, it will be autoclaved in a matter of days.

Plate Streaking
Niall Hamilton

The laboratory technique of culturing independent strains from a single microbe species, known as “plate streaking,” takes on a decidedly different meaning in Hamilton’s playful interpretation.

Living, Breathing
Susan Boafo

Created from millions of living, single-celled aquatic Euglena protists as they respond to gradations of light passing through negative film, Boafo’s series captures the process of photosynthesis.

Life Is Fleeting
Susan Boafo

The primitive life forms compete for the light source. The resulting images are haunting and temporary: the medium breaks down as CO2 is converted into oxygen. Darwinian concepts of competition, evolution, and origins inspired Boafo’s series.

Ophelia
JoWonder

A still from a project inspired by the character Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Growing, shifting bacteria filmed in Petri dishes by the artist JoWonder animate what will ultimately be a video installation. Chromobacterium violaceum, a bacterium that inhibits the growth of other bacteria, was used to shape the “painting.” The Surrey University molecular biologist Simon Park collaborated, with funding provided by The Wellcome Trust.

Primate Phylogeny
T. Ryan Gregory

Escherichia coli streaks on agar offer a microbial view of the branches of primate evolution, as part of Gregory’s “This View of Life” exhibit in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday.

Tree of Life
T. Ryan Gregory

Gregory crafts a microbial interpretation of Darwin’s famous 1837 sketch, illustrating Darwin’s first ideas of how a genus of a related species might originate by divergence from a single point.

Bacterial Patterns
Eshel Ben-Jacob

Tens of billions of individual microorganisms, colored by Ben-Jacob for effect, form vivid and sometimes psychedelic patterns.

Force of Nature
Eshel Ben-Jacob

The colony structures Ben-Jacob creates emerge from adaptive responses to laboratory-imposed stresses that mimic hostile environments faced in nature.

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