Cafe Sci – Exploring the Invisible

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At last night’s Reading Cafe Sci, Dr. Simon Park, Senior lecturer in Microbial Sciences at the University of Surrey, enlightened us on the use of microbes in art.

Simon’s talk began with an introduction to how diverse and ubiquitous microbes are; because they’re minuscule, microbes are often overlooked, but their visible presence in our environment can be seen every day. Examples of microbial growth and inhibition on roofs and pavements were shown, and parallels were drawn to microbial cultures in the laboratory.

The remainder of the talk focussed on the use of naturally pigmented and bioluminescent bacteria in artwork, from a replica of Sir John Everett Mallais’ Ophelia to watercolour paintings. Simon has even produced a watercolour self-portrait using his own microbial flora!

Bacteria communicate to regulate gene expression and increase fitness – called Quorum sensing – and it’s through communication that some bacteria produce bioluminescence. Simon’s work with these bacteria have included Bioluminescent cities using moulded agar and he even brought some microbial baubles to the venue! Also shown was the use of soil bacteria to produce fluorescence by breaking down enzyme substrates, demonstrated by placing lumps of soil quite simply on agar containing the substrate.

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Due to the media, the perception of microbes are too often associated with “superbugs” and organisms that cause disease. This talk showed microbes to be important symbionts that have the ability to make decisions, produce colourful and fluorescent pigments and display behaviour that can be used to produce some wonderful art.

A big thanks to Simon for ending a great 2014 for Cafe Sci!

If you’d like to explore the invisible some more, check out Simon’s blog.

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