#FEMSmicroBlog: Microbial bioluminescence in contemporary art


Contemporary artists always seek new ideas to express their creative minds. Many get inspired by nature and, especially, by rare natural phenomena. In their quests to push the boundaries of contemporary art, some bio-artists turn their focus to the mesmerizing phenomenon of bioluminescence. In this #FEMSmicroBlog, Antonios Michas explains why bio-artists choose bioluminescence in their work and what challenges they face. #MicrobiologyInArt


The fascinating natural process of bioluminescence

Several organisms can produce light with chemical reactions; one of which is the astounding bioluminescence process. Organisms able to produce bioluminescence are found in oceans and on land, and include deep-sea fish, jellyfish, dinoflagellates, fireflies, fungi, and bacteria. Some bacteria produce light within hosts enabling them to adapt to certain environmental conditions.

Bioluminescent organisms produce light either continuously or in brief flashes, both serving different purposes, like vision, defence, and mating. While most species typically produce blue-green light, some emit yellow or red light.

Already long ago, the phenomenon captured the attention of researchers and philosophers, like Charles Darwin and Aristotle, who shared their fascination in their works. Throughout history, many harnessed nature’s glow for functional purposes. For example, in eras before the wide installation of electricity, bioluminescent fungi and fireflies were used as light sources in dark forests and coal mines.


Microbial bioluminescent art

Today, contemporary artists use the bioluminescence phenomenon for purposes beyond mere lighting. Microbes, in particular, provide a versatile canvas for bio-artists, giving a beautiful glow. From living drawings on agar plates to reflective installations responding to touch, bio-artists aim to open our minds to astonishing phenomena evoking profound emotions.

A striking example is the “Infinity Cube” by Iyvone Khoo. This room-sized installation projects videos of the marine dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans replicating a bright bioluminescent bloom. The goal of the bio-artist is to foster a sense of unity with nature and instil respect for it (picture 1).

The “Infinity Cube” by Iyvone Khoo and Dr. Michael Latz showcasing marine dinoflagellate bioluminescence.
The “Infinity Cube” by Iyvone Khoo and Dr. Michael Latz showcasing marine dinoflagellate bioluminescence.

Other bio-artists focus on portraying the role of bioluminescence in the natural world. The Canadian-based artist and researcher Dr. Hunter Cole surrounded people with petri dishes containing glowing organisms. Images showing couples in wedding poses with bioluminescent glows aim to illustrate the mating function of bioluminescence (picture 2).

“Bioluminescent weddings” by artist and researcher Hunter Cole, portraying wedding photographs accompanied by bioluminescent petri dishes.
“Bioluminescent weddings” by artist and researcher Hunter Cole, portraying wedding photographs accompanied by bioluminescent petri dishes.


Challenges and considerations for bio-artists

Working with living organisms requires careful planning and maintenance. Controlling light emission, integrating it with other artistic elements and accounting for variations in brightness contribute to the intricate process of creating bioluminescent artworks.

For those using bacteria on agar plates, the process feels like “painting on jelly with invisible ink that only becomes visible the next day”, as Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, explains. This is why bio-artists often collaborate with scientists to ensure that their artistic vision is integrated with the scientific background.

Additionally, light production cannot be fully predicted as it depends on the life cycle of the organism in use. Even on nutrient-rich petri dishes, bacteria die off within a few weeks, losing their unique light and bringing an end to the produced art. Yet, bio-artists choose to embrace the short life of their art by creating dynamic artworks that would be otherwise impossible.

Instead, videos by Dr. Wiles and Dr. Cole follow the growth of microbes within the art pieces over time. These sequences aim to express life itself, shifting our attention towards nature’s cycle of life and death. 


Bioluminescence as a new and dynamic type of sci-art

Microbial bioluminescence brings new light into the art world. Bio-artists weave science and creativity together to create immersive or ephemeral experiences that captivate and inspire. By blending the boundaries between art and the natural world, they aim to find new ways for us to appreciate the brilliance of microbial life and nature as a whole.


About the author

Antonios Michas is a researcher with a background in microbiology and microbial ecology, as well as an aspiring science communicator. In his research career, he studied microbiomes from several environments, including low-nutrient forest soils, alpine grasslands, thermal springs, and asphalt oil-exposed sediments. He loves collecting knowledge on a broad range of topics and he is motivated to make an impact with his work, reaching a broad academic and non-academic audience.


About this blog section

The section #MicrobiologyInArt will present examples of microbiology in literature, cinema, comic books, songs, graphic art, modern/contemporary art, video(games), photography, dance, and others. A particular focus is on what could people learn from those examples, or how they can raise awareness on microbiology topics, issues, and potentials.

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