written by Julia Handra
Micro-organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi, are all around us. In fact, most of the time bacterial cells outnumber human cells in our bodies and though numerous, these organisms often go unnoticed. As both an artist and a science student, I made it my mission to represent microorganisms on a greater visual scale. Substituting bacteria and yeast for paint, and agar plates for a canvas, I created images composed of thousands of living organisms. Under warm conditions, the living art is constantly growing and changing with the infiltration of contamination. The piece may change itself overtime – a feature that is uncommon in conventional art.
Here is a step-by-step guide to making your own living art.
- Petri Dishes
- Nutrient Agar
- Spreaders or inoculation loops
- Paint brushes (fine and soft)
- A microorganism such as yeast or bacteria as a medium
- Ethanol, gloves, candle for aseptic technique
These materials can be found on websites such as carolina.com although they can also be substituted with sterile household items.
2. Choose Your Medium
In theory, there are millions of possibilities when choosing a micro-organism to work with. It is important to consider a few factors such as safety, accessibility, and how easy the microorganism is to manipulate. Food, such as yogurt, is a fast and cheap way to source a medium, as we surround ourselves with such bacteria-fermented food on a daily basis. Ideally, you want to work with a medium that grows quickly at room temperature. You can also try growing the microorganism in a warmer environment, such as an incubator or small boiler room.
I first tried working with Activia Blueberry Probiotic Yogurt. Activia, and other yogurt brands, use bacteria such as Bifidobacteria Lactis that are naturally found in the human gastro-intestinal tract and assist with digestion. Upon swabbing the yogurt, plating and incubating, the bacteria appeared in a thin and fairly translucent layer.
A much better medium to use for contrast in images is yeast, as it is white and opaque. Most grocery stores carry dry yeast that is easy to prepare.
Painting and drawing on agar is a lot more challenging than on a conventional canvas. The soft and humid agar is easy to slip on and puncture, therefore a lot of control is needed. Additionally, as you draw, it is very hard to see the work you have already done. To resolve this problem, I first drew my design on paper, placed the agar plate overtop and then traced from left to right. Before attempting a more intricate design, I first started with simple lines and shapes to accustom myself to the medium and play with the thickness of the strokes.
Applying aseptic technique, trace your design onto the agar. If you’re having a hard time seeing your progress, hold the plate up to light to see the strokes you have already made. Once the piece is complete, store the agar plate in a preferably warm environment. The longer the plate is stored, the thicker and bolder the strokes will grow, however, longer incubation times will also minimize detail. Once you are satisfied with the growth, wrap the piece in saran wrap to prevent contamination and store in a fridge to stop proliferation.
Final Products: All these images were created using yeast, however, they were incubated for different lengths, creating the difference in thickness of stroke. Additionally, the image of the rose was drawn using a thin paintbrush, while the tree and the portrait were created using an inoculation loop.
Julia Handra is an alumn of Future Science Leaders. She worked on her living art over the summer of 2018 before heading back for another year of her BSc.