A Synthetic Biologist's Beautiful Palette of Bacteria Art
To synthetic biologist Tal Danino, bacteria provide all the primary colors an artist needs.
Photo by Soonhee Moon, courtesy of the artist
Tal Danino grows various strains of bacteria into detailed, microscopic patterns that pull you in close. During a recent residency at Eyebeam in New York City, he researched how bacteria could be used as inks in various printing processes, like silkscreening or stamping. The resulting series of works, Microuniverses, is a marriage of nature and engineering—in the artist’s words, “you can control these patterns, but then they evolve on their own.”
The concept of “controlling universes” is part of Danino’s day job. As the director of the Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory at Columbia University, Danino is figuring out how to program bacteria so it can detect and treat diseases in our bodies. “You can turn the bad bacteria good and get them to do all these amazing things,” he explains. “I got really interested in these pattern-forming bacteria, and as a scientist, you just start thinking about how you can engineer these patterns. So now we’re trying to see if we can use naturally forming patterns, with some level of engineering on top of that, to increase what the bacteria can do.”
Danino uses that same formula to produce his artwork: design the roadmap, then let the bacteria do their thing. A series of works installed like photo slides, stained in colorful hues and backlit with LEDs, feature household names like E. coli and Salmonella, as well as other strains, such as Paenibacillus dendritiformis, which grows outwards into finger-like shapes. Another strain, which causes urinary tract infestions, forms circular rings, and others “kind of look like snowflakes,” remarks Danino. The bacteria are stamped onto a gel that holds their food—chopped up proteins and salts—and as they compete for nutrients, they fan out into fractal patterns. Starting with just a single dot or line, they are left to carve out territory and work their magic for several days, even up to a few months.
“I think of each little slide as its own little universe,” says the bio-artist of these mini abstractions. “If you look at a slide, you can’t tell if it’s something you would find at the bottom of the ocean, or a really faraway galaxy.” Danino takes that concept further with another lightbox, which integrates a “four-bacteria silkscreen” to create a photographic image of the Helix Nebula. The image collates the mysteries of the macro- and micro-universe. In Danino’s practice, inspiration comes from “turning inward, rather than looking outward.”
A third set of works uses living bacteria, which are left to grow along a stamped pattern shaped like the emoji space invader. “Biologists use that symbol to text each other about bacteria,” shares Danino. For him, that old school, arcade game aesthetic “is kind of representative of where we are with synthetic biology. Biology is becoming the new computer. We’re learning to program organisms in all kinds of ways. But we’re still at that early video game stage.”
Danino is no stranger to turning bacteria into mesmerizing visual art. Previously, he worked with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz to create images produced from bacteria, cells infected with viruses, and cancer cells. You can check out Colonies, The Creators Project's documentary on their work, below:
Danino’s new body of work is part of the Eyebeam exhibition, To Scale, which also showcases a diverse set of artistic research from fellow residents. It is on view until May 26, though you can get a photo preview here. Learn more about the Tal Danino's work here.