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A Microbial Work of Art

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Sclupture of a bacterial colony

Credit: Scott Chimileski, Sylvie Laborde, Nicholas Lyons, Roberto Kolter, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that are too small to see in detail without the aid of a microscope. So you might not think that zooming in on a batch of bacteria would provide the inspiration for a museum-worthy sculpture.

But, in fact, that’s exactly what you see in the image. Researchers grew in a lab dish Bacillus licheniformis, a usually benign bacterium from the soil that produces an enzyme used in laundry detergent. The bacteria self-organized into a sand dollar-like pattern to form a cohesive structure called a biofilm. The researchers then took a 3D scan of the living bacterial colony in the lab and used it to print this stainless steel sculpture at 12 times the dime-sized biofilm.

This work of art—a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2017 BioArt competition—was created by Scott Chimileski, Nicholas Lyons, and Roberto Kolter at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Assisting them was Sylvie Laborde, an exhibit designer at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge. The sculpture was displayed in the museum last year in advance of the current main exhibition on microbial life, running through September 2019.

My regular blog readers may recall this isn’t the Kolter lab’s first award-winning foray into microbial artwork. Last year, Chimileski and Kolter were recognized for a photographic portrait of a biofilm representing millions of the single-celled bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

But, as striking as that image might be, Chimileski realized that the 2D micrographs typically used in biofilm research miss the many details of their 3D structure. To address this oversight, Chimileski turned to an approach based on light scattering to capture 3D models of biofilms. While the methods were originally developed for quality control in manufacturing computer chips, he found that it works equally well in analyzing the details of colony biofilms.

Chimileski and colleagues used one of those intricate 3D models as a template for producing their award-winning sculpture. They chose stainless steel as a medium because its reflective patina was ideal to highlight the biofilm’s heavily ridged, 3D form.

Those ridges are essential for influencing the ability of an individual aerobic bacterium, like B. licheniformis, to reach oxygen in a biofilm. The hope is that works of science and art like this one will lead to new understanding of the unique properties of biofilms, including those responsible for serious hospital-acquired infections, while forging greater appreciation among museum-goers for the wonders of microbial life.


Kolter Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston)

Scott Chimileski’s Portfolio

Harvard Museum of Natural History (Cambridge, MA)

BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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  • PDN says:

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  • JPJ says:

    The idea is interesting. I just wonder if it will make museum-goers more appreciative of microbial life. Well, it couldn’t do any harm, I guess. The idea, however, is as said interesting.

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