microbiology

Star Stuff, Galaxies of Genetically Modified E. coli by Zachary Copfer

Star Stuff install 1

There is one source of inspiration that has earned the attention of poets, artists and scientists alike, the night sky. Whether it be for spiritual reasons, such as the Native Americans who believed the stars were a world for their ancestors, or for reasons as practical as sailors navigating this world; the stars have been a guiding source for humanity for centuries. Poets, such as Edgar Allen Poe in his poem Evening Star, have turned to the stars as companions and muses burning in the cold darkness of night. Painters have also been known to draw on the stars for artistic guidance. One of the most well known paintings in all of history, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, serves as a tribute to the awe inspiring beauty possessed by these heavenly bodies. However, what science has to say about the stars may quite possibly trump the examples listed above in both their poetic and artful natures.

“We are all made of star stuff”, this is a quote made famous by the late Carl Sagan. When he spoke this phrase Sagan was referring to the scientific theory that all matter was first created in a star. Science has revealed the stars as the origin of all atoms larger than hydrogen. There are few ideas more poetic or more artful than the suggestion that all matter, all life, has a common origin in one of these guiding lights burning brightly in the night sky.

This installation consists of a visual exploration of the romance and splendor embodied by this scientific theory. The work entitled Star Stuff is an installation of living phosphorescent bacterial photographs of the cosmos taken by the Hubble telescope. Each celestial form is comprised of billions and billions of genetically engineered E. coli that have grown in such a pattern that they form a photographic reproduction of a celestial object. The installation is meant to instill in the viewer a sense of wonderment and awe reminiscent of the emotions experienced by poets and artists as they gazed at the stars. Suggesting that the scientific view of the universe is not cold and passionless, that in actuality, it is deeply poetic.

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Bacteria Portraits, Bacteriogoraphy by Zachary Copfer

Leonardo da Vinci portrait in bacteria

As a former microbiologist recently turned visual artist, I seek to create work that is less of an intersection of art and science and more of a genuine fusion of the two. During my graduate research I invented a new medium that combines photographic process with microbiological practices. The process is very similar to darkroom photography only the enlarger has been replaced by a radiation source and instead of photographic paper this process uses a petri dish coated with a living bacterial emulsion. I believe that great beauty and poetry reside within the theories woven by scientists. And that it is through the unification of art and science that these treasures can be fully explored and made accessible to the world at large.

When I was an undergraduate perusing a degree in Biology, I found myself utterly mesmerized by what I was learning. Each day’s lecture brought to my attention new insights into the complex systems at work in the world around me. The more I learned, the more mystified I became. Science grew into a way for me to revel in the beauty of the universe. I began to better understand and appreciate my place among all of the other particles floating in space. After obtaining my bachelors degree, I began working as a microbiologist in a commercial lab setting. Quickly I began to lose sight of all that I had found romantic about science. Shortly after this disinfatuation of science, I began an adventure into the field of photography. Photography developed into my new method of inquiry. Everything that I had missed about science I rediscovered in photography. For me, the two seemingly disparate fields of study served the same purpose, a way to explore my connection to everything else around me.

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Albasaurus: The World's First Day-Glo Velocirabbit (Dear Mr. Kac) by Zachary Copfer

Dear Mr. Kac,

As a former microbiologist recently turned transgenic bio-artist, I have been told by numerous people that I should look at your work. So, like any normal person would do, I googled you. As you can imagine, most of the results were about Alba, the day-glo bunny. It just broke my heart to read that you never got to take Alba home and love her like all rabbits deserve. After going to all of the trouble of trying to buy a test specimen from a genetic research lab you ended up empty handed. It's so sad that you only got to hold Alba once. I read that some people not only believe that you never saw Alba but that she may never have existed at all. But I did an image search and found a picture of you holding a rabbit. Therefore, I know that she must exist and that you did in fact meet her. I was so inspired by the story of Alba that I contacted a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Henry Wo, a geneticist at InGen, and asked him to create a chimeric animal of my own design. And thus Albasaurus, the worlds first day-glo Velocirabbit, was born. Or should I say hatched. My original intention was to give Albasaurus to you, as a gift, to help fill the void left in your heart by Alba. However, after holding Albasaurus in my arms and then introducing her into my family, I just cannot bear to part with her. As a small consolation, I am sending you a bacteriograph of Albasaurus. I created it in my lab using E. Coli that I genetically modified with the DNA for GFP (don't worry, the bacteria has been preserved and sterilized). Although it's not quite Albasaurus, the bacteriograph is transgenic bio-art. I hope this token serves to lessen your grief, if even just a little bit.

P.S. I have included some photographs of Albasaurus to prove to you that she is real and to show you what a good and loving home she has here.

Sincerely yours,

Zachary Copfer

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Bringing Dinosaurs Back With Life by Zachary Copfer

As part of the testing and refinement stage of my bacterial photography process, I decided to pay homage to the subject matter that helped me to come up with the idea in the first place, dinosaurs. The two images below are visual evidence of the evolution of my bacterial art.

The first image, Staphlosaurus, was a bacterial "drawing" I did just for fun back when I was working in the microbiology lab. It simple served as a way to entertain myself and coworkers during a mundane laboratory test. The second image, Serratiasaurus, has played a role in the development of "bacteriography", my new form of photography. Like many people, as a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I just never quite outgrew that phase and probably never will. So, I found it only appropriate that one of my first images grown in bacteria be of a dinosaur. I mean really, what's cooler than a dinosaur grown in bacteria...nothing! I figure if I can't bring them back to life why not bring them back with life.

Bacteriography by Zachary Copfer

As a former microbiologist recently turned visual artist, I have begun searching for ways to synthesize the seemingly dichotomous fields of science and art. I believe that the separation of art and science is a misconception shared by many who are unfamiliar with the simple elegance of scientific theories. For me the world of science has always been a beautiful poetic place, more artful than anyplace else I have ever known.

In an effort to more deeply explore and then share the connection between art and science, I have designed a new photographic process that I have coined "Bacteriography". Put simply, this is a process to develop photographs in plates of bacteria. That is to say, the bacteria literally grow to form photographic images. The process is very similar to traditional darkroom photography, except instead of light sensitive photo paper I use plates of bacteria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first body of work I am creating with this new method is entitled Star Stuff. This work consist of photographs of distant galaxies, stars and supernovas taken by the Hubble telescope that i have then developed in plates of E. coli that I have genetically modified to be bioluminescent. Star Stuff serves as a visual exploration of the famous quote from Carl Sagan "We are all made of star stuff". When he said this, Sagan was referring to the scientific theory that every atom in our bodies was first created in a star. Personally, I can't think of anything more beautiful, anything more poetic or more artful than a common celestial birthplace for all life on Earth.