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Elevating Poop Science to an Art

Bacteria are not the enemy. That’s the first thing microbiologist and doctor Nicola Fawcett wants us to know. The microbes are an essential part of our bodies and our lives. “We wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria,” she wrote in her blog.

Fawcett studies the bacteria she finds in the poop of her patients and study participants. In her work with the Antibiotic Resistance in the Microbiome OxfoRD study, which has the best recruitment posters ever

—Fawcett watches patterns emerge. She sees how diet, travel, hospital stays, and, most dramatically, antibiotic use change a person’s microbiome. Our gut bacteria are like plants in a garden, she writes: 

A healthy gut is one that is populated with many different types of bacteria, living together. Some bacteria are almost always beneficial, some are harmless, and some can be harmful. They compete for nutrients, interact, and communicate with one another.  But much like a garden, some types of bacteria can get out of control and cause damage if the careful balance between human and bacterial community [sic] is disrupted.

With these botanical images in mind, Fawcett decided to create images that would showcase the beauty, interconnectedness, and complexity of gut bacteria. She stamped tiny colonies of bacteria onto a dish of dye-infused agar, then left them to grow overnight. The dyes can only be activated by the enzymes of specific bacteria; in this case, it was Escherichia coli (purple), Citrobacter (turquoise), and Klebsiella (dark blue).


Each colored dot represents an entire colony of bacteria, which could be made up of millions of individual organisms. The colonies grew and merged, with sizeable populations of E. coli and Citrobacter crowding out the tiny outposts of Klebsiella growth. From the seed colonies Fawcett had planted in the gel, the bacterial growth flourished, unfurling into a jewel-toned, translucent likeness of ivy on the vine.

At the outer edges of the gel, Fawcett stuck discs full of antibiotics. The antibiotics seeped into the agar and spread, killing off colonies of E. coli and Citrobacter. A halo of empty space surrounded the disc marked MEM, for Meropenem—medicine’s current ‘last line of defense’ against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But a few hours later, the halo had all but disappeared. In the absence of competition, Klebsiella colonies had crept in.

The presence of Klebsiella in what should be a bacteria-free zone is meant to convey “a worrying message,” writes Fawcett: 

Modern medicine (including surgical operations and cancer treatment) depend [sic] on having effective antibiotics to protect people from infection. These are already running out.

Fawcett submitted photographs of her bacterial paintings to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM)’s 2015 Agar Art contest. (Winners will be announced next week.) The project was a lot of fun, she said,

 and a surprising amount of work. You know the old showbiz adage, ‘never work with children and animals?’ I sort of feel the same way about bacteria…they seldom behave the way you want them to. 

 All photographs courtesy of Chris Wood, Oxford Medical Illustration, and Nicola Fawcett

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

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