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Petri dishes with micro-biome artwork

Seeing the unseen: Where science and art converge

By Katharine de Baun

Piece of the "Microbiomes: To See the Unseen" exhibit at The Arts Center

Thanks to powerful microscopes, we can see images of the 100 trillion or so bacteria living in and on a typical human body, while powerful telescopes provide breathtaking views of the billions of stars in our galaxy. But how do we make sense of such sights, fragments of vast realms that exist beyond our usual perceptions? Do we simply continue on as before, or has something profound in our sense of who we are and of our place in the universe irretrievably shifted?

Microbiomes: To See the Unseen, a groundbreaking new exhibit this spring at the Corvallis Arts Center in collaboration with the Department of Microbiology, brings art into one of the hottest zones of current scientific research, namely: how do microbiota influence life within ourselves and on our planet?

The exhibit, which runs April 13-May 27, 2017, at the Corvallis Arts Center, is part of SPARK, a campus-wide celebration of the interplay between arts and science, and features artwork, poetry readings, and musical performances. It represents the culmination of a year’s worth of preparation involving workshops between microbiologists and artists, lab work, tours, outreach events and artistic “experiments." Meet the artists at an opening reception Thursday, April 20 4 – 8 pm at the Arts Center.

To further deepen the experience, our College is hosting the OSU Microbiome Initiative (OMBI) this spring, led by microbiologist and statistician Tom Sharpton.

Why Microbiology?

Microbiology provides a huge canvas for artists. The human gut microbiome has probably gotten the most press, but microbiomes — the sum total of all of the microorganisms in a particular environment — are everywhere, from coffee cups to coral reefs, from a single leaf to the Santiam State Forest.

Linda Reichenbach art piece of two spirals, wood-like pattern

“Beyond the Naked Eye” by Linda Reichenbach

At Oregon State alone, microbiologists are studying the microbiomes of coral reefs, a plankton that could impact global warming, and some potentially surprising effects of antibacterial soap. At the federal level, a new $121 million National Microbiome Initiative is funding and coordinating research to understand microbiomes and restore damaged ones, and thanks to nationally recognized expert Thomas Sharpton, the Department of Microbiology will play a key role. Chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma; ecological disruptions like hypoxic zones in the ocean; and plant and animal diseases that lower agricultural productivity are all related to dysfunctional microbiomes, so there is urgency driving the research.

Due to the large quantities of data, statistics also plays a role. An undergraduate research experience this summer will enable students to analyze gut microbiome DNA sequences and use statistical methods to see how bacteria influence health.

Art and Science — natural partners?

Why are art and science natural partners on the borders of hot new research? Precisely because the facts alone don’t paint the whole picture – nor specify where the most fruitful avenues of future research lie. Human imagination is required.

For example, consider our own bodies. Microbiotics can tell us that for every human cell in our body there is a microbial cell; that our microbiome encodes more than 100 times the number of genes in the human genome proper. But if our microbiome makes up over 50% of the “stuff” that determines what we physically are, do we need to redefine what “self” means? Is I more of a We?

Science can’t satisfy philosophical questions like these, but art can. Translating or expressing new research into mediums like words, clay, or paint, artists discover ways to reconcile new information and what it might mean to us. Far from being completely random, the artistic process, while not exactly predictable nor repeatable like a scientific experiment, often solves problems according to its own innate logic, sense of order or pattern, and of course, human values. (An undergraduate course this spring, “Art of the Microbiome: An Interdisciplinary Conversation,” will wrestle with some of these very questions.)

“I use my art as a way to stimulate thought process. Science and art are very process-oriented and you have to clearly think through the steps in each,” says Department of Microbiology Head and Emile J. Perot Distinguished Professor Jerri Bartholomew.

Bartholomew is a key organizer of the event and an accomplished glass artist whose work is part of this exhibit.

The exhibit represents the culmination of a year’s worth of preparation involving workshops between microbiologists and artists, lab work, tours and outreach events at local schools. Participants event conducted artistic “experiments,” such as painting with pigmented bacteria and “selfie” culturing of an artist’s hand or tongue, even of a dog dish, to see what grows on a petri dish.

Other events include:

April 15: Family Art day
April 20, 4-8 pm: “Meet the Artists” Reception. Open to the public. The Arts Center, Corvallis
April 27, 12–1 pm: Luncheon Brown Bag Art Talk
May 18: Corvallis Arts Walk and da Vinci Days in May Arts Lecture
May 21, 4–5:30 pm: Performance event (music, poetry)

Image: Petri dishes with cultivated micro biomes are used as the basis for student art work.

Read more in this spotlight on Jerri Bartholomew's work.