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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Art and science are rarely brought together to the front scene. A remarkable duo, Maria Peñil Cobo and Dr Mehmet Berkmen, work in synergy to produce art with bacteria (Bacterial Art).

Bluesci: Could you tell us a few words about your background as well as Maria’s?

Dr. Berkmen: I was born in Turkey, and left Turkey at age of 10. I went to middle school in Canada, high school in Vienna, and did my undergrad at Imperial College London. I then received my PhD training at Houston in Texas and my degree from University of Vienna and a Postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. I am now a Senior Scientist at New England Biolabs where my lab conducts research on genetic engineering of bacteria to produce proteins that are difficult to make. For example, using one of the engineered strains from our lab, we were the first laboratory in the world to have produced antibodies in bacteria!

Maria is from a small town in northern Spain called San Vicente de la Barquera. It’s a small town surrounded by nature which influenced the young Maria to fall in love with nature and be inspired by it. She went to Madrid to obtain a degree in Fine Art. Afterwards, she focused on working with natural materials, like hemp and honey, and specialized in making prints using carved wood.

Bluesci: How did you come up with that idea and how everything started?

Dr. Berkmen: As a young child, I was a very good drawer, like my father and other people in the family before me. But I also liked biology and thought I had to choose between science and arts. I chose to study science, and not art, but it felt like a forced divorce. I knew I wanted to join the two entities in the future. One day at a restaurant, I saw striking pieces of print art made of wood carvings. The artist was one of the persons working in the restaurant, Maria. I gave her my card and told her to come to the lab to present her my work with bacterial art, hoping for a collaboration. Maria was immediately fascinated by the intrinsic beauty of bacteria and quickly fell in love with microbiology and bacterial art. Since 2011, we have been working together making art from living bacteria.

In 2015, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) started the first Agar Art competition, and by that time Maria and I have been working on it for four years. We submitted our work, and to my surprise, we won the first prize. I think the reason for that is that we have been preparing for this type of event for years. Also, most people participating were scientists and not artists, and had just weeks or months to prepare, while we had years of experience. Winning the ASM prize was where it all began, and within months, we became viral.

Bluesci: What is your aim with the Bacterial Art?

Dr. Berkmen: We do have two ambitions. The first one is to bring bacteria and humans together, and the second is to bring art and science together.

For the first ambition: there is a massive gap in public knowledge between what people know about bacteria and what bacteria really are. We depend on microbes for our own health and for the ecological balance of the planet. They are basically the engineers of this planet and they have been here for 3.5 billion years. Half of the world’s oxygen that we breathe is made by them, and the nitrogen is completely recycled by them. We have a huge link to them.

This is not new to microbiologists, however the general public usually has a disgusted reaction when they are asked about bacteria. The only times people get to hear about microbes is through infectious diseases. We are visual creatures; we believe in what we see. That’s why we use visual art to convey a positive message about bacteria using the universal language of art. To do that, we run workshops in high-schools and conferences where I give talks on bacteria and bacterial art, Maria does a demonstration on how to do it, and then we bring plates and let other people do their own art. You don’t actually see the result of the drawing immediately and the bacteria are free to grow in different directions and communicate with each other, so you don’t have full control over the art. In bacterial art you are in collaboration with the art itself.

For the second ambition: The separation between art and science is much more important in the Western world compared to the Eastern world, where the industrial revolution did not tear apart the two entities as much. There is a more holistic view of the truth in the East. I never present myself as ‘the scientist’ and Maria ‘the artist’ and if you look at the picture on our webpage you will see that I am dressed like an artist and Maria is dressed like a scientist. Both the scientific and the artistic processes require trial and error. You try to draw something but you don’t know exactly what you are doing. Science is the same, we do not always know the outcome of our projects, but we make an informed guess. Artists are a bit more honest with their work in that regard. What I love is the freedom that Maria has, each time we have a contamination, she says “it’s ok, it’s art”, whereas we can’t do that in science.

Bluesci: Could you tell us a bit more about the third artist involved, the bacteria?

Dr. Berkmen: We use three groups of natural bacteria that are not harmful to humans. First, we have production bacteria: in my company we isolate enzymes from bacteria and some of the bacteria have natural colors that we can use. Second, we have guest bacteria. During experiments, we can have unwanted bacteria in our plates that we used to call contamination. Since we started bacterial art, we called them “guests”. If the guests have interesting shape or colours we keep them for the art, and then we sequence them to check that they are non-pathogenic. The third group is Escherichia coli, engineered to produce a chromogenic protein.

This interview with Dr Berkmen was truly inspiring. We are observers rather than controllers of science — that is the reason why it will continue to attract scientists, as long as there are humans and bacteria on Earth.

"Subsurface" bacterial art created using the following bacteria on agar plates: Arthrobacter, Deinococcus, Nesterenkonia, Xanthomonas and Bacillus.

Pauline Kerekes is a post doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. Artwork by Maria Peñil Cobo and Dr. Mehmet Berkmen.