The Picture Show
8:33 am
Tue October 23, 2012

Beautiful Bacteria: How To Make Art From E. Coli

Originally published on Tue October 23, 2012 10:51 am

Bacteria can be pernicious, but they also keep your stomach digesting, turn cucumbers into beloved pickles, and can, apparently, also be used to make art. Of course, it all depends on how you want to define "art." But Zachary Copfer finds himself precisely where it intersects with science.

"I believe that the dichotomy often imposed on the fields of art and science is extremely limiting to both areas of study," he writes on his website. "I create visual art that is about deeply exploring the beauty and poetry that reside in scientific theories."

I reached out to Copfer after seeing his "bacteriographs" on PetaPixel and (this will be really revealing) couldn't contain my enthusiasm.

"That was pretty much my exact reaction to the first successful image of Einstein," he replied.

You hear of the starving artist, but not too often of the starving scientist. Copfer describes himself as "a microbiologist masquerading as an artist." With an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, he spent five years in a lab coat before shifting gears to get an MFA, which he completed this past spring. And now, he says, he's "going through that difficult transition from grad student to professional artist."

Copfer made his first bacteriographs using billions of microscopic E. coli to create cosmic images.

"There are few ideas more poetic or more artful than the suggestion that all matter, all life, has a common origin in one of these guiding lights burning brightly in the night sky," he writes on his website.

So how does it work? Here's his explanation:

"I take a petri dish with nutrient agar (the Jell-O-like stuff that the bacteria eat) and cover the entire surface with an even coat of bacteria. I then take a special photographic negative of the image that I want to 'print' and place it over the petri dish.

"Next, I send radiation through the negative and onto the petri dish. As the radiation hits the negative, some of it is blocked and some of it passes through and hits the petri dish below. Where the radiation goes through the bacteria die, where it is blocked the bacteria grow. Take for example the Einstein image. The little red dots are where the negative blocked the radiation and the bacteria grew. The white space is where the radiation came through and sterilized the bacteria.

"After exposing the bacteria latent petri dish to radiation, I allow it to grow for several days. After I feel that the image has finished 'developing' I irradiate the entire thing so the bacteria will stop reproducing. This 'fixes' the image and keeps the bacteria from spreading all over the place. Finally I use acrylic and resin to preserve and protect the bacteria."

Have I thoroughly convinced you of how cool this is? Before you click away, here's one last thing:

Although his galaxy images were made with E. coli, Copfer switched to a bacteria called Serratia marcescens for his later work because he liked the red color. It's the same thing that causes respiratory and, yep, urinary tract infections.

But hey, it's not gross — it's art!

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.