Imagine ordering a plate of penne pasta and having it served on a petri dish plate made by bioartist Nurit Bar-Shai. The plate is composed of living, constantly moving and expanding bacteria. The bacteria create intricate, stunning patterns that resemble what we know as trees, flowers, vortexes of storms, or even an octopus.
How is this bio-art possible? Why is this possible? Bar-Shai, from Genspace, a community biotechnology lab in Brooklyn, has experimented with this phenomenon as a means of exploring the complex social networks of humans that are ultimately rooted in the networks of bacteria. On Sept. 20, she presented her findings to Colorado College students and faculty.
For her experiments, Bar-Shai chose the Paenibacillus C, T, and Vortex strains that are considered one of the smartest bacteria in nature to figure out how they respond to environmental factors, showing if they are aware of the type of environment in which they are placed. What she found was that the bacteria fan out in patterns specific to their strain in order to find food.
When the petri dish and the agar from which they grow are put into contact with stressors such as a change in size of the petri dish or sound waves of various strengths, the path by which the bacteria fans out and morphology of the bacteria changes. In essence, the bacteria also have adaptable, problem-solving techniques.
From this, Bar-Shai concluded that the bacteria have a complex communication system by which they distribute tasks to certain bacteria. One set of bacteria controls structures, the path the pioneer bacteria take to search for food. Each path is its own unique creation, not just by coincidence.
Bar-Shai integrates this into the art world by not only creating these plates, but also by beginning to find an answer for a couple of questions: When are we creative? How do we define creativity and beauty? “We see these images of the petri dishes and see them as beautiful,” said Bar-Shai. “Why? I think as we recognize patterns in nature. We subconsciously understand that there is a complex network, a complex problem-solving that we identify as beauty.”
Bar-Shai’s main issue in creating the plates is that the bacteria will die if not cared for. “What if it’s like pets, humans, plants, or material objects?” Bar-Shai explained. “They, like bacteria, need to be tended for. This is artwork that consists life in itself.”
First-years taking Intro to Molecular Biology realized through this presentation the broader scope to which biology can be applied. “I think it opened my mind to what could be done with the instruments we use in the lab for experiments,” said freshman Hannah Lyons. “It shows how we can look at things in a new light by getting a perspective from, in this case, an artist, but really from any field.”
In terms of future projects, Bar-Shai hopes to experiment with how a colony of bacteria would act if they were placed in a loop and eventually met up with each other, thus designing a specific spatial experience, or maze for the bacteria. This would further her scope of understanding of how information visualization is done naturally under variable conditions. “There’s some sort of collaboration [in bio-art] and a relationship between the paradox of controlling the experiment and letting it go,” said Bar-Shai. “I really like that relationship that you don’t have in any other work.”