Bacteria, by and large, aren’t nearly as scary as the reputation they sometimes carry. In fact, sometimes they’re downright beautiful, says bacteriologist Simon Park. Park, a professor at the University of Surrey in the UK, has been collecting bacteria for the better part of a decade. His collection, called C-Mould, is very specific in its purpose: Nearly all of the 36 species are used for art projects.
For his most recent bioart project, Park created what he claims is the first book made entirely from bacteria. Pages. Ink. All of it. Granted, Park’s book—a recreation of Charles Darwin’s On theOrigin of Species—is not a one-for-one reprint of the famed naturalist’s seminal text. It’s more like a title page, with a few blank pages that Park intends to fill in later. Still, it’s impressive.
Park created the pages, which are about half the size of an iPad mini, by using a bacteria called Gluconacetobacter xylinus—a microbe that produces cellulose identical in structure to the plant-derived version found in cotton and paper. The bacteria grows as a gel, which Park lets accumulate to a thickness of about two centimeters. He then dries it out. When the moisture evaporates, a thin cellulose film, about the thickness of a piece of paper, remains. But the resulting paper doesn’t look like paper. Instead, it resembles a cross between tanned human skin and rock candy. It’s brown, and slightly fragile. If you were to bend it enough, it’d probably crack. All this to say, bacterial paper is not the same as the bleach-treated variety you have in your printer.
For ink, Park used a variety of bacterial pigments that he scraped off of agar like oil paints. He used colors like Chromobacterium violaceum, a purple microbe found in soil; Kocuriarosea, a pink variety found on human skin; and Vogesellaindigofera, a blue bacterium known to eat toxic waste. He applied these pigments with a stencil, and gave the colors two days to set.
Most of Park’s projects live somewhere between art and science. “It’s in this zone between the two,” he says. “Sometimes, but not all of the time, that’s where really exciting things can happen.” It can create unexpected phenomenon. Take, for instance, the time when Park created a meter-wide Petri dish and let various colors of bacteria roam free on a layer of cotton placed inside. A red bacteria called Serratiamarcescens was the most aggressive. “If you give it the opportunity to move, it will move.” It overpowered most of the bacteria, except for the blue, which was able to create an antibiotic buffer around itself. “We didn’t know that it produced an antibiotic,” he says. “If you follow those [observations] up, you can make some quite exciting scientific discoveries.”
Park sees his book as a more direct application of science than his cotton canvas experiment. It is not, however, a practical process. Park says it took him nearly 8 days to create the cellulose paper, and an additional two to paint the text and let it set. Not exactly mass manufacturing material. But he adds that it’s certainly possible to print an entire book, multiple for that matter, if you were to scale up the operation.
As for the choice of book? “That was a deliberate choice,” he says. In Darwin’s time, the invisible world of microbes was just beginning to be explored. “Origin of Species was a play on the fact that bacteria, or bacteria-like organisms, are the origin of the species. Without them we wouldn’t have the species we’re familiar with today.”