To appreciate this art, you need to step into a dark room and let your eyes adjust for a few minutes. But these paintings are special; they don’t just use your regular glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent paint. Instead, they actually contain living beings - bioluminescent sea-dwelling bacteria Aliivibrio fischeri.
Last weekend at the World Science Festival Brisbane one very dark room at the Queensland Museum was dedicated to an exhibition called Biolumination, conceived and curated by Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist from the University of Auckland.
The paintings consist of square agar dishes that contain all the necessary nutrients for these glowing bacteria to grow and prosper. Wiles invited local artists to sit down with this unusual medium and create artwork with essentially invisible "ink" - a solution containing these bacteria.
“But I also like that they get completely freaked out by the fact they can't see what they're doing until the bacteria have grown, and that's quite something when they're used to correct errors as they go along."
Wiles admits that bacteria can indeed be a stressful medium, as it needs to be timed exactly right with an exhibition going live. “The bacteria only glow when they reach a certain number, and they have to have the right nutrients.”
In nature, A. fischeri often lead a remarkably comfy lifestyle in symbiosis with various marine animals - in particular with the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes). The squid’s mantle contains a light organ which hides the squid’s silhouette when viewed from below in a phenomenon called counter-illumination (see video below).
“Basically the squid provides the bacteria with a home and nutrients, and the bacteria provides the squid with an invisibility cloak that it uses for camouflage,” explains Wiles.
Dr Wiles’s first artistic collaboration was in fact directly inspired by this squid-bacterium relationship. In 2013, for the Auckland art festival Art in the Dark together with artist Rebecca Klee they filled 3-D printed squid with a suspension of these bacteria.
“We displayed them in this little tent suspended in mid-air underneath a beautiful picture of the moon, kind-of mimicking how they exist in nature," says Wiles.
These bacteria aren’t just cool to look at, though - the genes that make them glow are a valuable contribution to science. Wiles leads the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland, where her team researches antibiotic-resistant bacteria, colloquially known as superbugs.
Using genes similar to the ones A. fischeri use to produce the glowing chemical reaction, the researchers basically make superbugs glow in the dark in order to efficiently test new antibiotics.
“They only glow when they're alive, and we can use that to give us a really quick readout for whether our bacteria are dead or alive when we hit them with experimental drugs,” explains Wiles. “It's quite cool.”
Biolumination art has a more direct contribution to this research as well; photos of the artwork are used on decorative items sold at her Redbubble store with proceeds going directly into funding the search for new antibiotics.
Wiles believes that science art can be more than just a creative outlet - for her it also helps to communicate science to the public, showing how amazing bacteria can be and pointing out the importance of basic research that’s driven by nothing more than curiosity.
"I couldn't do what I do for a living without somebody being interested in these bacteria and why they glow, and wanting to figure out what genes they use to produce light,” she says.
“Nobody knew then what the applications of that science was going to be - they were just curious. If we stop supporting fundamental science, we won't get those discoveries."