The invisible colony of bacteria that spreads its invisible biomass across a petri dish is as gestalt as any alien hive-mind. Like such a mind, it grows with design, and it is from this design that Eshel Ben-Jacob, an Israeli professor of physics, extracts both his science and art. Using what grows in his petri dish as raw material, Ben-Jacob’s Bacteria Art highlights not only the beautiful patterns of bacteria colonies, but their social intelligence as well. The result is trippy, evocative, and breathtaking, like MRIs of alien brains throbbing and lighting up as they sleep.
The origins of Ben-Jacob’s bacteria art stretches back decades to the early 1990s. As part of a team at Tel Aviv University, the biological physicist discovered two new species of bacteria—Paenibacillus dendritiformis and Paenibacillus vortex—in the soil near the roots of plants. Ben-Jacob decided to pursue a controversial idea: He would try to see if he could identify advanced collective behavior in wild bacteria strains.
"At the time, the idea that bacteria might exhibit collective and social behavior was very provocative," Ben-Jacob tells Co.Design. But Ben-Jacob pursued the theory, creating challenging environments for his bacteria to show how a bacterium within a colony might work together to survive. What these experiments revealed was that what happens inside a bacteria colony is almost human.
For example, one thing that Ben-Jacob discovered was that there are different kinds of bacteria in a colony, "like a human body," has specialized cells that handle different tasks, like skin cells, blood cells, muscle cells, and so on. These are called phenotypes. It’s the same with bacteria, except for one incredible thing: Since bacteria cells replicate every 20 minutes, they can actually change their phenotypes according to the needs of the colony as a whole.
"Imagine, every time you went to the gym, you could immediately convert your fat cells to muscle cells to deal with the challenge," says Ben-Jacob. "Then you come back from the gym, and maybe you want to read a book, so all those muscle cells turn into neuron cells." That’s one of the many incredible things that bacteria can do.
Not only that, but bacteria can use tools. When growing on a surface, a colony might come across a gap that it can’t cross. What a bacteria might then do is send out individual cells to collect spores of fungi and throw them into the gap, effectively growing a natural bridge that the colony can then spread across.
Bacterium can even learn new skills from different strains of bacteria, in a bizarre exchange of information conducted with mercantilism, dancing, sex, and third-party matchmaking! "When colonies are exposed to antibiotics, they can exchange proteins for the information on how to resist antibiotics from other strains that might be resistant," explains Ben-Jacob. The bacteria will signal that they want to make a deal by dancing, a type of foreplay. When the deal is struck, they will then "have sex," with the antibiotics-immune bacterium growing a tube to deliver the genetic information to the bacterium that is susceptible. And because, even in the world of micro-organisms, there’s always a guy who will lie about having a Porsche to get laid, or who doesn’t care that he’s packing some gnarly STDs, there are even third-party bacteria who wander around, acting like matchmakers, hooking healthy bacteria up.
Because of all of these extraordinary problem-solving behaviors, bacteria are remarkably capable of responding to new challenges in their environment. By introducing new challenges to the colonies in his petri dishes, Ben-Jacob can create incredible fractal patterns, which although invisible to the naked eye, can be photographed by dying them with a blue stain and then coloring them further in post-processing to bring out the inner conflict of any given colony.
"Science and art both present to the world a model of nature, but when I study bacteria as a scientist, all my experiments must be reproducible," Ben-Jacob explains. "When I do it as art, I have the freedom to come up with all kinds of conditions without having to worry about another scientist needing to verify my work. But the art can help inspire the science, and vice versa."
For Ben-Jacob, even Bacteria Art represents the same complexity on the border between order and disorder that is at the heart of all good design. "When you look at the patterns, you see how the bacteria had to solve different problems to be together," Ben-Jacob tells Co.Design.
It’s not just random. It’s a story. A story of an alien world.