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viral experiment #2


Microbial Sensing


Microbial Sensing is an ongoing investigation into developing sensory relationships with microbial material.

Within biosciences, the word 'stress' is often used to refer to the various techniques applied to effect change (often genetic) in non-sentient organisms such as bacteria. As part of my research I have attempted to reveal the sound of bacteria, referencing Joe Davis' Audio Microscope, in order to understand whether it is possible to reveal otherwise hidden information about micro-organisms.  More specifically, I aim to detect an audible change in bacteria when they are subjected to the environmental 'stresses' of laboratory testing.  Using sound as a vehicle (rather than visual markers) is an attempt to evoke a stronger emotional connection with the concept of stress.  


This strand of work arose initially out of my research into the wonderfully ethereal organisms: cyanobacteria for the exhibition and publication, Oltramarino.


I worked with scientists from Newcastle University's School of Marine Science and Technology, exploring research on micro-algae and their potential commercial uses as nutritional pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals within the health and pharmaceutical industries.  Arthrospira, more commonly known as Spirulina, is capable of producing phycocyanin, an anti-oxidising phycobiliprotein with a rich deep blue pigment.  Phycocyanin is increasingly used as a natural blue food colouring, replacing the synthetic dye Brilliant Blue, which has been linked to health concerns such as skin and eye irritation and ADHD.


Research into Arthrospira and another micro-algae, Dunaliella salina (capable of producing beta-carotene, also a highly prized pigment) involves optimising the production of these pigments.  The process used to generate high volumes of such pigments involves "strain development activities" and I found that the word commonly used in relation to this process is "stress".  In other words, the algae are pushed to the limits of their natural capabilities to excrete higher volumes of the proteins required for commercial production.


In some cases, the genetic morphology of these unicellular organisms is altered, through the process of micro-evolution: rapid natural selection for specific conditions.  A nano-scale version of the domestication of wildstock or the breeding of dogs.


The focus of my research is the growing industry of synthetic biology and the philosophical, ethical and legal debates around the emerging ontologies within this field.  Microbial Sensing acts as a means to give voice to these emerging ontologies and considers micro-evolution as another scientific method by which such new species emerge.  

Microbial Sensing, 2015


This soundscape is the raw data used to generate the audio element of an audio-visual installation, titled The Stars Beneath our Feet, created for Lumiere Durham 2015, a four-day international light festival produced by Artichoke.


Click to view an excerpt of the video from the installation.


Using Atomic Force Microscopy, data is taken from vibrations made when the micro-algae Dunaliella Salina move and this is analysed and transformed into a soundscape using Python programming language.


The soundscape was produced with the support of Dr Richard Thompson, Department of Chemistry, Durham University, Dr Paul Vickers, Department of Computer Science & Digital Technologies, Northumbria University and Mark Reed of Leadline Sound. Dunaliella Salina were supplied by the Department of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University.

Recording of Dunaliella Salina 'swimming' towards laser probe.  Made at Department of Materials Chemistry, Durham University, 2nd June 2015

Click on the image above to hear the first test, using the Photosounder application.

Further documentation of the approach to recording the sound of Dunaliella salina can be found in Evolution of the Subject: Synthetic Biology in Fine Art Practice​ and in Leonardo Music Journal, 30.

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