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  • Alex Cloherty

The art of microbiology

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Today's post is inspired by my little sister, Michaela (who did the cover art for this post). People often comment on how we went down completely different paths – her an artist, and myself a scientist. Today, I aim to send that idea crashing down.

You've probably already heard of some artist-scientist types – Leonardo da Vinci, for example, with his detailed depictions of human anatomy. Or perhaps you've seen the amazingly intricate drawings of neuroanatomy by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Maybe Darwin's drawings of his finches is the first example of scientific art (artistic science?) that pops into your mind. Regardless, most people aren't aware that art also played a key role in spreading knowledge about not only macrobiology, but also microbiology!

Our story of art and microbiology starts even before the work of the Dutch scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who is widely regarded to be the "father of microbiology". In fact, it was the drawings of another artist-scientist that inspired Leeuwenhoek to search for "animalcules" in pond water, saliva, semen, and just about everywhere else he could. This talented guy in question was Robert Hooke, the author of Micrographia. Micrographia, published in 1665, was the first illustrated book on microscopy. By masterfully drawing his 'animalcules', Hooke captured the fascination and imagination of other scientists all over the world. He also used his artistic skills to give a detailed explanation of the methods that he used to study microscopic creatures. In fact, it was Hooke's drawings that inspired van Leeuwenhoek to look for microbes, thereby kickstarting the field of microbiology.

If we zoom all the way forward to the 19th century, art still had a place to play in popularisation, and appreciation, of microbiology. The German scientist Ernst Haeckel was a busy biologist who not only discovered thousands of new species, but also created stunning images of a group of lesser-known, but incredibly beautiful microbes: radiolaria. Radiolaria are a sub-group of single-celled eukaryotes that often have a rather geometric form that is stabilized by elaborate silica skeletons. Ernst Haeckel kept himself busy identifying these water-dwelling creatures on his trips to the the seas and oceans; in fact, on a single trip to the Mediterranean, Haeckel named more than 150 new species of radiolarians. With his artistic renderings of these creatures, Haeckel aimed – and succeeded – to attract the interest of non-scientists to the beauty of the microscopic world around them.

Today, the boundary between art and science is still crossed in microbiology. For instance, it's become popular for microbiologists to craft living art in petri dishes, composed of colourful bacteria and fungi! These creative microbiologists have "painted" everything from a Mona Lisa replica to flags to landscapes. Instagram pages like Couch Microscopy showcase the use of modern technology to create both stills and short films of the intricate microbiological and subcellular worlds. And of course, I have to shout out to my sister Michaela, who created an overview of my PhD project for me, and my friend Matias, who created not only the Microbial Mondays logo but also other super-cool microbial works of art like this one.

In school, we are often taught to separate science from creativity and any form of artistic expression. I hope that this post has convinced you that this is a ridiculous idea. Science has greatly benefited from art in the past, and I'm sure the vice versa case is true as well. In my opinion, artistically showcasing science is a great way to bring in not only more public understanding and enthusiasm for it, but also a perfect way to increase your own appreciation for your field.

Until next time - stay creative!

~ Alex

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