Microbes live on us, and with us. They don’t just make us ill – they can also protect us from infection, and keep us healthy. Our gut is like a forest, or garden, where microbes flourish in a balanced, mini ecosystem.
This exhibition features gut bacteria, grown on colour-changing nutrient jelly plates, stamped in botanical designs. The plates also contain paper discs infused with antibiotics, which dissolve into the jelly. The images explore how bacteria found in the gut interact with antibiotics, and what this means for our health.
These images have been created using the same techniques we use in hospitals and laboratories to study how bacteria respond to antibiotics. Gut bacteria have been stamped in decorative patterns onto nutrient jelly (‘agar’) and left to grow overnight, then photographed. They are a collaboration between University of Oxford Scientist Dr Nicola Fawcett, and photographer Chris Wood.
Dr Fawcett is a hospital Doctor, and studies how antibiotics affect the delicate balance of microbes in the gut. She has created this exhibition to help communicate the messages of the ARMORD study, which is currently recruiting adults in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about this at: armordstudy.wordpress.com
You can learn more about the science behind them (and the original images) here
You can hear more from Chris and Nicola, on the techniques they used, and other questions here.
If you would like to leave any comments or feedback, or are interested in hearing about future art or research projects, you can do so here (note: external site)
Here’s an explanation of how we created the images:
Higher resolution and individual images are available below.
Wild vines of the gut
Growing on the surface of this nutrient jelly are three common bacteria that helpfully inhabit your gut. The plates also contain paper discs infused with antibiotics, which dissolve into the agar, and alter how the bacteria grow.
Vine leaf tip
The bacteria are stamped or painted onto the jelly, then left to grow overnight. Each dot is a single colony of bacteria, each containing millions of bacteria. There are dyes in the jelly that are only activated by the enzymes of specific bacteria; in this case, it was Escherichia coli (purple), Citrobacter (turquoise), and Klebsiella(dark blue). These dyes dissolve into the bacterial colonies, turning them different colours.
This image is created using discs of a common antibiotic, ciprofloxacin. The antibiotic dissolves out into the nutrient jelly. Some blue-coloured bacteria are unable to grow near the ciprofloxacin - they are 'sensitive'. The lilac-coloured bacteria can survive closer - they are more 'resistant' to the antibiotic. This creates the halo effect round the antibiotic discs.
The Serendipidous flower
Bacteria all behave differently. Some are able to produce a slime and spread out onto the nutrient jelly, looking a bit like a flower. I'd love to say this was intentional -in fact it would be incredibly difficult to get just one colony growing where you wanted. They way this turned out was just luck!
Resistance is hard
A different nutrient jelly, or agar, is used, which has different dyes present, and creates different effects. As the jelly itself contains antibiotics, the only bacteria that can grow on it are ones that are already resistant to cephalosporin antibiotics.
Resistance is hard #2
The bacteria living near the antibiotic disc here have to work hard to try and stay alive. They are producing a lot of the enzymes that create the color, hence the 'rainbow' appearance.
Only one left...
There is a lot in the news about drug-resistant bacteria. Here you can see discs containing nine commonly-used antibiotics in hospitals. The dark-blue colored bacteria can grow quite happily in the presence of eight of them - the antibiotics do not kill it. These bacteria are 'resistant' to all but one of the antibiotics we have available.
Antibiotics? What antibiotics?
We are already seeing bacteria which cannot be treated with ‘last line’ antibiotics. Modern medicine (including surgical operations and cancer treatment) depends on having effective antibiotics to protect people from infection. These are already running out.
Competition is healthy
The tree is created out of a mix of bacteria, mostly competing for space and nutrients, so colonies can't grow larger than pinpricks. This is similar to what happens in the gut, where ‘beneficial’ bacteria can out-compete more harmful ones and keep them under control.
Towards the edges, the antibiotics are killing many bacteria, removing the competition. This means the 'antibiotic resistant' bacterial colonies can grow larger. By killing the sensitive bacteria with antibiotics, we have allowed the resistant ones to 'take over'.
Keeping the good stuff
This shows one way we can prevent the spread of these 'antibiotic-resistant' bacteria- we can preserve the 'good' bacteria in our guts, to keep the resistant ones in check.
We can do this by not overusing antibiotics, and saving them only for when we really need them.
Our guts and us
Recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to study bacteria in new ways. This is showing us that We are realising that we wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria – we live together, and often help one another, living together in balance.
Our guts and us #2
We provide our gut bacteria with food and habitat. They, in return, help protect us from harmful bacteria, help our immune system, affect metabolism, or hormones, even possibly our mood… They are a part of us. Antibiotics can cure, but they can also disrupt this healthy balance if they're used needlessly. If in doubt- don't disrupt!
All images on this post are by Chris Wood. If you re-use them, please attribute them to: Chris Wood and Nicola Fawcett, Modernising Medical Microbiology (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0))
Nicola Fawcett is supported by a Clinical Research Training Fellowship funded by the Medical Research Council UK, and the exhibition has been kindly supported by a Medical Research Council UK Public Engagement Seed Fund Award. Nicola is currently undertaking a D.Phil with the Nuffield Department of Medicine and the University of Oxford with the Modernising Medical Microbiology Research Group.
This work has been created as part of our public engagement programme, to communicate the science we do, and why we do it at: http://modmedmicro.nsms.ox.ac.uk/art/
The original work, and more images, and a lot more explanation, can be found at Nicola Fawcett’s page here: http://livinginamicrobialworld.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/the-wild-garden-of-the-gut-bacteria/
If you are interested in obtaining prints of the images, or hearing about future art work, please email firstname.lastname@example.org