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Bacterial art - incubating creativity in the lab

Posted on Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By Joanne Gibson, Ph.D.

Topic: Art and science

“In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.”  E. O. Wilson (biologist, naturalist and writer)

There is a misconception that the scientific process involves little creativity and an abundance of careful planning and calculation, and conversely, that an artistic burst of creativity comes purely from an expression of emotion without a great deal of preparation. The reality is quite different – the capacity for creativity, the passion, and the planning that lead to scientific discovery and artistic expression are surprisingly alike.

Both art and science are creative and experimental

Artists do an abundance of investigation and planning before they begin their work. For example, a painter will plan the scale, the emotion, the medium and brushes, and they research their subject for accuracy. They need to be masters of their medium - chemists experimenting with solvents and oils. They might invent their own techniques to achieve their desired effect, and their work can be enriched by welcoming 'happy accidents'.

The research scientist who has a specific question in mind will use their creativity and imagination when conducting initial experiments and exploring different avenues. This path to a new discovery can look a little like 'dabbling' until they realize they are on the right track; it is then that they rigorously apply the scientific method to systematically test their hypothesis. Their findings are published in a logical progression of methodology and results, which gives the (somewhat misleading) impression that this is how the entire process occurred.

Why then, are art and science usually viewed as polar opposites?

Art and science are often viewed as separate disciplines. This can partly be explained by the intellectual specialization that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th Century and saw a transition to specific manufacturing processes and dedicated expertise in fields such as chemical production, agriculture and transportation. Pre-Industrial Revolution, the revered intellectuals of society were the philosophers, writers and poets, but post-Industrial Revolution a greater emphasis was placed on teaching math, physics and science. Over time, this separation became a great chasm in communication between the artistic and scientific cultures.

It was only in 1834 that the term 'scientist' was coined at Cambridge University. The label 'natural philosopher' had been considered but was eventually deemed too broad. "Scientist" was a term used to generally describe those in all fields of science such as biologists or physicists, and it was coined by analogy to "artist" – used to describe a musician, painter or poet. At the time, a scientist was thought of as a "seeker of truth", whereas an artist was described as an "asserter of truth"; essentially antonyms, yet both with a desire to find truth and understanding in the world around us.

Children are less likely to think of art and science as separate disciplines and are instinctively drawn to both. They can learn about nebulae using glue, watercolors and glitter, or they can learn about leaf anatomy using colorful leaf rubbings. An adolescent can be proficient in computer programming and robotics, while at the same time have a passion for music and film. However, once a student enters college, they tend to be directed down one path or the other, destined to become either an artist or a scientist, but rarely both. In fact, the Art and Science faculties are often on opposite sides of the college campus!

But, if you look closely enough, you can see examples of science and art overlapping everywhere: physicians moonlighting in orchestras to relieve the stress of their occupation; a microscopist who uses sculptured molecular models to communicate with the visually impaired; an artist and physical chemist who uses large-scale installations and heart rate monitors to visualize biometric data as rippling waves and flashing lights, or even a cognitive neuroscientist who studies laughter, which led her to a secondary career as a stand-up comedian!

Microbial masterpieces

Here at NEB, science and art unite in the lab of Senior Scientist Mehmet Berkmen (Memo), who hosts local artist, Maria Peñil Cobo.

Memo's research interests include the molecular mechanisms that guide the formation of disulfide bonds in the model bacterial organism E.coli. He noted while working so closely with bacteria that "Inspection of microbial life at the micrometer scale has gone in leaps and bounds, but the inspection of bacteria at the millimeter scale has remained stagnant".

Maria is a mixed media artist who grew up appreciating macroscopic beauty in nature – the tracks made in the sand by tides, leaf veins, and seaweed. When Maria began her collaboration with Memo, she immediately fell in love with bacteria; despite having no scientific knowledge, she saw its inherent natural beauty. As Maria learned about her new artistic medium, she became proficient with the necessary microbiological techniques needed to work with non-pathogenic strains of bacteria. This made her aware of all the media attention that is placed on virulent strains of bacteria and their threat to our well-being, even though there is growing knowledge of the importance of commensal bacteria in human and environmental health. Maria says that “People are afraid of what they don’t see, or they don’t understand” and she saw this new venture as an opportunity to visually communicate the diverse and immense beauty of bacteria.

One of the aspects Memo enjoys about creating art with such a unique medium is that the “bacteria are effectively an additional artist, working independently of the artist. For example, you might streak two different types of bacteria on an agar plate with a specific style or image in mind. Yet, as they send chemical signals to each other, they change and influence each other's growth pattern. So, the artist is not in complete control”.


Figure 1: Snowflake time-lapse - Memo's lab designed a humidified chamber for bacterial growth over extended periods of time. This has allowed them to produce time-lapse videos that capture the growth of the bacterial colonies and the diversity of their phenotypes.


Scientists are creative people who are taught to objectively interpret data and draw conclusions based on a hypothesis. The students in Memo’s lab, who are still finding their way and are hesitant to connect with their creative potential, enjoy and are inspired by Maria's presence. A student who is encouraged to imaginatively think at the intersection of art and science without being channeled into (or defined by) just one discipline, can approach a challenge with a diverse set of intellectual and creative problem-solving skills; it is in this space, where the lines between art and science are blurred, where real innovation can lead to unique, groundbreaking solutions.

Memo ponders how he can further inspire collaboration between art and science in the window where they intersect. He taught Maria to grow and work aseptically with bacteria as tools for her art, but what if she was taught how to use a microscope or carry out PCR or clone a gene? Could a deeper understanding of the science inspire her art, and in turn, could her art direct scientific discovery?


Figure 2: A series of images of Memo and Maria's bacterial art


Science can inspire art and art can challenge science

When we talk about the commonalities between art and science and the potential for both cultures to inform each other, it becomes evident that artists are generally more willing to see the beauty in science than scientists are eager to see the art in their research. Still, scientific communication could sometimes be well served by interpreting it through an artist’s eye, especially if the wish is to share it with a broader audience.

The ultimate goal of both science and art is to communicate truth and understanding of ourselves and the world around us, without a misunderstanding of concepts or missed opportunities that can arise from communicating in an overspecialized voice. If creative minds can express their ideas and findings in a way that is readily accessible to the broadest possible audience, this is when true innovation that can really propel society forward will happen.


Memo and Maria's art

Maria and Memo's bacterial art is featured at https://www.bacterialart.com. It has hung on the walls of the Harvard Natural History Museum, and Maria has given a Tedx Talk at Columbia College Chicago. They will also appear in an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary that explores humanity's interaction with pathogens and microbes through the ages.

NEB's Passion in Science Awards®

In 2014, NEB introduced the Passion in Science Awards to recognize dedicated members of the scientific community who work to solve many of today’s challenges. One of the four award categories, Art and Creativity, recognizes individuals who embrace the art in their science, or the science in their art, thereby making their scientific findings accessible to a broader audience. You can learn more about our Passion in Science Award winners here.

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