Last thursday and Friday, Will and I attended a Human Microbiome workshop at the Eden Project near St. Austell here in Cornwall. The Eden Project is an educational charity centered around the Rainforest Biome (domes left in the picture), the Mediterranean Biome (domes right in the picture) and The Core (far right in the picture), set in large gardens in a reclaimed clay pit. Eden is a place where the public can be inspired to engage with globally important environmental issues. One such project is a planned exhibit in The Core next year on the Human Microbiome, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The workshop was set up to exchange ideas about what messages could be conveyed and what media, installations or citizen science activities could be used to do that.
In case you did not know: the microbes in and on your body outnumber your own cells 10 to 1. Even more impressive is that their combined genomes harbour several millions of genes compared to the 30.000 or so in your genome. Your microbiome is capable of performing many functions that you can’t yourself. For instance, the bacteria that colonize us aid in defence against pathogens, break down toxins and supply molecules vital for our metabolism. So the reputation that bacteria are just nasty pathogens is quite undeserved.
It proved to be two very stimulating days with people from Eden, scientists and artists. (Although it is quite challenging to translate scientific ideas to the public via art !) Jack Gilbert and Maria Dominguez-Bello joined remotely from the US to present some of their fascinating work on microbes on humans, on their pets and in their houses. Mike Wilson from UCL, author of multiple books on the subject, see here) gave a great ‘live’ presentation where he proposed that Homo sapiens should be renamed Homo bacteriensis, as our dependence on bacteria is arguably more striking than our wisdom. Below some creativity during a discussion session: bacteria (cocci and flagellated rods) attacked by phage:
One scientist present is also an artist: Simon Park has a fantastic website on his artful experiments/experimental art: Exploring the Invisible. Check it out to see algae responding to whale songs, DIY agars, students painting with the bioluminescent Photobacterium, bacterial wargames played out on a giant petridish, slime molds in plastic spheres, bacterial fabrics, and many other fantastic projects. Below “biosuede” produced by culturing the mould coating of a cheese (I know now this is called the rind) on milk:
Another artist was Rogan Brown, who makes paper sculptures representing organic forms. He brought along a beautiful bacterial piece which I forgot to take a photo of, but here is an image of another one of his fantastic works:
Another, local artist (of whom work can be seen in a current Eden exhibition) is Paul Spooner, who makes automata, witty mechanical objects. He does not have a web site, but there is plenty to find on his work on the web. For instance this:
Finally, Anna Dumitriu has created a diverse range of science art, of which microbiology-related projects include a solo exhibition on the ‘romantic disease’ tuberculosis; an art/science investigation into early superstitions about this ailment, through the development of antibiotics, to the latest research into whole genome sequencing. She also explores bacterial dyes for clothing (in collaboration with Simon Parks), created an installation on our ‘hypersymbiosis’ with bacteria and runs BioArt workshops around the world. A detail of a dress colonized by the dye-producing bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum:
All very cool stuff. Will and I hope to be of use during the further development of this project. We are also in talks with Eden about a related microbe-based project; I hope to post more about that some time soon.