Artists Reveal the Bacterial Beauty of the Human Microbiome

"Symbiosis" by Rebecca D. Harris represents the microbiome through hand-embroidered French knots. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

In one sense, you are more bacteria than you are human. At least, you are vastly outnumbered by the amount of bacteria inside you. The human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. Advances in DNA technology are finally allowing scientists to study these microbial companions in depth, deepening our understanding of how the colonies of bacteria that coexist with the human body—the microbiome influence mental and physical health. Each one of us has an utterly unique melange of different types of bacteria that can affect our anxiety and depression levels, influence our weight, and serve as protection against disease, among other things.

As a way to help nonscientists understand these organisms that call our bodies home, the Eden Center, an educational charity with a visitor center in Cornwall, U.K., commissioned 11 artists to explore the microbiome through a visual medium. The new permanent exhibition, “Invisible You,” includes a 7-foot-tall bouncy inflatable gut, a paper sculpture of an E. coli bacterium, embroidery of microbial communities on human skin, and a sculpture containing a fecal transplant. 

“We wanted to take people inside their bodies, making the actual concept easier to understand,” Gabriella Gilkes, the Eden Project’s science program manager, tells mental_floss.

Mellissa Fisher’s “Microbiological Portrait” is a sculpture cast from the artist’s face, covered in bacteria from her skin. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

Brooklyn-based artist Joana Ricou turned belly button gunk into bacterial paintings with her contribution, “Other Self Portraits.” She asked individuals to swab their belly buttons, then wiped the sample on a Petri dish covered in agar, a jelly-like food source for bacteria. A few days later, when the samples had blossomed into moldy-looking colonies of bacteria, she photographed them and added a post-production swirl of color. (All the bacterial belly button portraits are on display on Tumblr.)

"Other Self Portraits." Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

The belly button served as a particularly significant source for the project because of its importance in child development. The placenta linking mother and child may be cut after birth, resulting in our innies or outies, but the mother-child physical link isn't truly severed, thanks to microbes. During and right after birth, microbes are passed from mother to child from the mother’s skin, birth canal, and breast milk. “The microbiome blurs the boundary between generations,” Ricou says in an email. 

Indeed, it blurs the boundary between all people. In her first 60 portraits, Ricou (and her scientific partners at North Carolina State University) identified a handful of the same bacteria common to individuals in the U.S. There are certain bacteria common within groups of people. “This strong similarity marks the microbiome truly as a connector, linking each of us not just to our environment but to all other humans and living things,” she says. 

Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

Though people may share some of the same kinds of bacteria, your microbiome is as unique as your DNA. Scientists postulate it could identify you as easily as a fingerprint does. And yet we contain multitudes of living creatures. "We are these walking colonies," observes sculptor Rogan Brown, whose cut-paper renderings of E. coli are on display in the exhibit. "Of course it isn't an alien species. It's part and parcel of who you are."

"Cut Microbe," by Rogan Brown // YouTube

As initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project try to pinpoint exactly how bacterial changes help or hurt our health, “Invisible You” is a reminder that though it may feel like your body belongs to just you, it's a trillion-organism ecosystem unto itself. That's a good reminder that you're never truly alone.

The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is

The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

This 77-Year-Old Artist Saves Money on Art Supplies by 'Painting' in Microsoft Excel

It takes a lot of creativity to turn a blank canvas into an inspired work of art. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi makes his pictures out of something that’s even more dull than a white page: an empty spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

When he retired, the 77-year-old Horiuchi, whose work was recently spotlighted by Great Big Story, decided he wanted to get into art. At the time, he was hesitant to spend money on painting supplies or even computer software, though, so he began experimenting with one of the programs that was already at his disposal.

Horiuchi's unique “painting” method shows that in the right hands, Excel’s graph-building features can be used to bring colorful landscapes to life. The tranquil ponds, dense forests, and blossoming flowers in his art are made by drawing shapes with the software's line tool, then adding shading with the bucket tool.

Since picking up the hobby in the 2000s, Horiuchi has been awarded multiple prizes for his creative work with Excel. Let that be inspiration for Microsoft loyalists who are still broken up about the death of Paint.

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's process in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]


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