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Antimicrobial Resistance: Seeing the Problem at Hand

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

A hand with green and brown swirls with some orange specks throughout

Credit: Lydia-Marie Joubert, Stanford University Medical Center

You’ll be relieved to know that this is not a real hand, swarming with exotic species of microbes. But this eerie image does send a somber message: antimicrobial resistant bacteria (green) are becoming more common and more resilient, while the numbers of vulnerable bacteria (red) are dwindling.

The artist is Lydia-Marie Joubert, an electron microscopy expert at Stanford University Medical Center. She created this image by overlaying a photograph of artist Francis Hewlett’s sculpture of a human hand, five feet tall and emerging from the grounds of a garden in Wales, with epifluorescence micrographs of Pseudomonas bacteria growing on the surface of a glass tube. Her imaginative image earned her the People’s Choice award from The International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, run annually by Science magazine and the National Science Foundation.

Joubert typically spends her time studying biofilms: thin sheets of bacteria that grow in colonies on various surfaces. Although we tend to think of bacteria as individual cells, floating in a nutrient broth or in our blood stream, their more natural pattern of growth is to anchor to a surface and secrete a type of matrix that allows each bacterium to communicate with others in the colony. This natural growth pattern can be problematic when these multi-layered films develop in medical equipment, or in the human body, because antibacterial agents cannot readily penetrate the lower layers of biofilm and kill the bacteria.

Joubert was inspired to create this image while staring at the intricate swirls of bacteria growing in fractal patterns. The patterns result from the bacteria’s growth in a narrow glass tube (a “flow cell”) where they are exposed to a constant river of nutrients. She hopes her image, though a graphic representation of a pressing biological problem, will also serve to remind scientists not to get so carried away by their data that they fail to appreciate the beauty of the science right in front of them.


Cell Sciences and Imaging Facility, Stanford University Medical Center

2013 Visualization Challenge, Science and the National Science Foundation

Antimicrobial resistance. (NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)


  • Jose E S Roselino says:

    It is a rather convincing image. This is a real problem. However, I would never follow a line of synthetic biology in order to face it. There is a lot we can do after a better knowledge of our immune system. Improving living conditions of the most vulnerable to infections, dealing in a better way with the ecology of our health systems in general, and hospitals in particular. This last aspect will surely indicate how nature deals with superbugs better than we do with some of our technological actions that seems to indicate more ignorance of future consequences than knowledge of sound old scientific events of the past.

  • C.S. says:

    I love the opening line “You’ll be relieved to know it isn’t a real hand!” Haha

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