Bacteria as an Art Form?

Posted on October 5, 2015 by Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

How would the world change if we could detect cancer with bacteria and art? MIT scientist Tal Danino and artist Vik Muniz show us the amazing possibilities.

Image: Liver Cell Pattern 1.  The study of cancer relies on the understanding of how healthy and diseased cells function in our bodies. Here, healthy liver cells (primary rat hepatocytes) and cancer cells (below HeLa cells, cervical cancer) are transformed into images using micropatterning techniques. To make these images, a silicon stamp of the image was created, using photo-lithography, in a clean room facility at MIT. This stamp was placed on a dish coated with collagen, a molecule known to stick to cells, and plasma was used to ablate the collagen except where the stamp is not present. Cells were then added to the culture dish and washed several times, resulting in an image with an approximate size of one centimeter and features on the order of the size of cells (10 um) that are imaged on a microscope in purple and gold tones.
Image: HeLa cell Pattern art mandala in blue tones

“What cool patterns!” you think… Take a closer look.

Image: A zoomed-in image of the above Liver Cell Pattern 1. Background is purple, cells are yellow.

The patterns are actually made of cell colonies. Although the purple print leads you to believe otherwise, the cells are healthy liver cells from rats!

This science and art collaboration project is entitled Colonies and is the work of scientist Tal Danino and artist Vik Muniz. Danino describes the work on his own site as:

“…a project that visually communicates many of the scientific research directions I have worked on.  Parallel to telling the scientific storyline, the Colonies series is also an exploration of the relationship that scientists have with the ‘living’ materials we work with.  The relationship we have with cancer is complex in that in the everyday world, cancer is one of the worst words we can think of.  It is a word we automatically associate with death and a topic that we avoid talking about.  Many of us have a strong emotional reaction to cancer, knowing someone who has or had cancer. But as scientists we find cancer cells to be fascinating, complex, and dynamic organisms (see movie below) and when we work with cancer cells, we want our cancer cells to be healthy and ‘happy’ for our experiments to work.” 1

Want even more information about the background behind this project? Here is a video put out by The Creator’s Project about Colonies…

I watched this and thought to myself “Wow, there are so many amazing things that happen when science and art are combined!” It makes me wonder: what else is out there? Don’t worry, when I find the best of the best I will make sure I get it here for you!


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Liesl can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV