Artists and scientists rarely work together in a lab. But a team of artists and scientists at Texas A&M University joined forces, and their collaboration led to both an enhanced method for studying bacteria and a new medium for generating eye-catching images.

This project began with researchers Paul Straight and Yongjin Liu in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They wanted to optimize the antiquated process of visualizing how bacteria interact within their complex biological communities—but without relying on expensive technology. Also, the two researchers wondered whether it was possible to capture bioluminescence, the light emitted by the microorganisms. If so, the team could study changes in gene expression—that is, how an organism uses a gene’s encoded information to build protein molecules in the bacteria as they grow. “By looking at these communities as a whole,” Straight said, “we can better understand the biological basis of these interactions and the subsequent changes in their behavior.” After realizing that Texas A&M has a visualization department in the College of Architecture, Straight approached Carol LaFayette, director of the Institute for Applied Creativity. As it turned out, LaFayette already was serving as principal investigator on a federally funded project to foster collaborations between the arts and the sciences. “It seemed a perfect fit,” Straight said. LaFayette agreed to develop a method to capture images of the bacterial interactions. She recruited Courtney Brake, a graduate student with an extensive, interdisciplinary skill set geared toward the arts and sciences.

One of the beautiful things about this project is that it uncovered a new artistic medium with an infinite color palette,” Brake said.

“Scientists get to see this infinite color palette, but the rest of the world doesn’t. Through these methods, artists can present their findings to the world in an appealing way and bring interest to the subject,” according to Brake. Working together, the new team created a versatile and affordable time-lapse imaging system, composed of off-the-shelf components, which captures changes in spatial and temporal patterns on the scale of centimeters. The result is a new approach to art that reveals the complex interactions of line, form, and color created as bacteria react to stressors that scientists introduce in their environment, such as food coloring or competition from other bacteria. “Humans are inherently collaborative organisms,” LaFayette said. “At the micro level, we host other living entities and cannot live without them. Through a blend of art, technology, and bioscience, these images heighten our visual and tactile experiences of these frequently mysterious interactions.”

A look at the

Time-lapse Imaging System

Images and videos by Courtney Brake

Bacillus subtilis was engineered to produce light only when various genes of interest are expressed. Using this bioluminescence, dynamic patterns of gene expression are visible in a mobile population of bacteria.


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