Painting with Bacteria

Biological material presents a new kind of palette for both artists and scientists. In the fall of 2012, MIT postdoc Tal Danino met with Visiting Artist Vik Muniz. Muniz, originally from Brazil, is known for his mosaic-like images crafted from unlikely, everyday substances such as dust, chocolate, grains of sand, and even industrial garbage. He has made a career creating beauty out of underestimated materials — in the award-winning film Waste Land, he produced large-scale portraits of Brazilian garbage pickers using the very discarded materials they collected as part of their jobs. Similarly, Muniz hopes to show bacteria — an organism most associated with uncleanliness and disease — in an entirely new light. Using bacteria, cancer and liver cells as the medium, Muniz and Danino have created a series of patterns and portraits using the bacteria as “paint” in much the same way that stencils or silk-screens are made.

Muniz and Danino hope these images will bring awareness to the importance of microscopic organisms, which are vital to life and also can be designed diagnose and treat disease. Spliced with the same protein molecule that causes jellyfish to light up so brilliantly, Danino’s e. coli bacteria pulse and flash like blinking neon signs. Danino, an MIT postdoc in Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia’s lab at the Koch Institute for Integrated Cancer Research, programmed the bacteria to release the protein through a phenomenon called quorum sensing, a way in which bacteria communicate with one another in order to function as a group. “Hacking” bacteria in this way, Danino believes, could lead to some significant biomedical advances: his ultimate goal to set bacteria to work delivering cancer-eviscerating drugs to tumor sites in the body.

Danino completed his graduate work in the relatively new field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, propelled by the mapping of the human genome and the advances made in sequencing DNA, is based on the engineering of biological organisms towards the development of useful applications. Calling upon the expertise of biologists, engineers, and programmers, the emergent field frames biology as a design question, a matter of collaging particular DNA strands together to create certain kinds of useful behaviors or characteristics. Imagine, as some scientists have proposed, if bacteria could be programmed to detect toxicity levels in water or work as a facial cleanser. “Coming up with a design for these behaviors,” Danino says, “requires tinkering, intuition, and just having fun with it.”

Posted on June 19, 2013 by Anya Ventura