MadLab Microbiology and Art Exhibition Review

Microbiology and Art Exhibition Review

Posted by Tamarisk Kay, over 6 years ago

The Microbiology and Art Exhibition, which opened on the 22nd October to 10th November 2011 at MadLab, in celebration of the beginning of the Manchester Science Festival 2011.

The exhibition brought together work and cultural heritage, to the beauty of microscopic images, through the impact of infectious disease in history to the use of art to communicate messages about science to a range of audiences, and overtly ‘sci-art’ projects.

Over 100 students worked on the project from Manchester Metropolitan University, producing a range of outputs that demonstrated skills in creativity, imagination and communication that lay well outside the realms of the typical undergraduate science curriculum.

The exhibition displayed ‘sic-art’ projects to microbiology to art, submitted by students. The exhibition was curated by Professor Joanna Verran.. More photos from the exhibition can be seen here.

Work in the exhibition

The MMU AIDS Banner

Microbiology and Art Exhibition Preview


Lynn Setterington and Joanna Verran

The AIDS pandemic has been caused by the spread of HIV infection. More than 37 million people are currently living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)-Aids (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), with over 90,000 in the UK. In 2009, a collaboration between textile artists Lynn Setterington and microbiologist Joanna Verran resulted in the production of the MMU AIDS banner. The banner was designed by Lynn, who travelled to a range of different organisations and schools across Manchester, using the talents of over 100 members of the public to produce final piece. The banner was completed in MMU on world AIDS day, presenting a community view regarding the approach to the HIV-AIDS ‘Respect and Protect’. The words are highlighted against a background of AIDS ribbons and ‘kisses’

The Manchester Microbe Map


Microbes growing on agar plate

DIYBio is an innovative ‘citizen science’ project that puts the tools and techniques of biology into the hands of enthusiastic amateurs. Manchester’s DIYBio group began in 2011, and one of our first activities was the production of The Manchester Map. This is a ‘Crowd sourced’ survey of bacteria at bus-stops radiating out from the centre of Manchester. Our Citizen scientists departed in pairs from MadLab on one evening in July, and swabbed various well-used sites around the city. They used the swabs to inoculate agar plates that contain appropriate nutrients to allow any bacteria on the swabs to grow, after incubation (25c for 4 days). The Results of the project is an interactive map which illustrated the fantastic diversity of microbial life found in even the most familiar of settings, shown by the range of different colony morphologies.

The Beauty of Micro-organisms

Nicola Wright

The Beauty of Micro-organisms

When microorganisms grow on agar plates, the colonies that they produced can look very different, but in order to see the ‘germs’ more clearly, of course we use microscopy. Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, but there are several different types of microorganisms, with different properties and of different sizes: bacteria, viruses, fungi. algae and protozoa.

Fungi, algae and protozoa are the largest of the microorganisms, with cell diameters around 5 -7 micrometers ( one micrometer is one thousandth of a millimetre). There internal cell structures are rather like ours, although of course there are some big difference : for example, algae contain chlorophyll,fungi have cell wells, and most protozoa cells are motile. It is also easy to see some of these microorganisms with the naked eye when they grow to produce visible structues – mould on food is fungal growth, and mushrooms are fungi too. Algae are the slimy green layers you can see on buildings and fountains, and seaweeeds are very large algae.

Microbial Diversity

Lorren, Shamaila and Maxine

Microbial Diversity

Lorren, Shamaila and Maxine used a microscopic view as the frames to display different groups of microorganisms. The delightful groups of microorganisms. The delightful high magnification graphic representations of diatoms, fungi and viruses are not to scale but the images remind us of beauty and diversity of microbial cells and virus particles.

Microbiology and Art Exhibition Preview

On the left ‘Viruses’ by Richard Jordan, and on the right ‘A clockwork Agar’ by John Tucker


Richard Jordan
Viruses are the smallest of the microorganisms, and are very different from the others. Viruses are know as ‘obligate intracellular parasites’ which means that they are unable to replicate outside a living host cell. There are viruses of humans, plants, insects, bacteria, algae and fungi, so a human virus needs human cells to replicate in, a plant virus will need plant cells…and so on. Viruses use their host cell equipment to make more viruses, so viruses don’t ‘grow’ or ‘multiply’ – they ‘replicate’. Viruses are measured in nanometers – one nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre in diameter – and we can’t see them using normal microscopes. Richard Jordan made a model of virus of a bacteria. These viruses are called bacteriophage (because they ‘eat’ bacteria – eventually infect bacteria, replicate inside the bacterial cell, and the ‘daughter phage’ are released when the host cell bursts.

A Clockwork Agar

John Tucker
Differences in the colony morphologies produced by bacteria growing on agar are used to help with initial identification. Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, went a little further and drew pictures using bacteria that produced different pigments to make unusual pictures on agar plates. Since then, several artists have utilised bacterial colonies and pigments to produced artworks- some bacteria even produce pigments that glow in the dark!

John wanted to explore the use of microbial pigments to produce an iconic image that utilised simple lines in minimal/two – colour format, such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, or Banksy’s stencilled graffiti. His project took him on a journey selecting a suitable artistic style, then finding an image with a message related to microbiology, and lastly overcoming the challenging technical aspects of the project (for more information, see his powerpoint.

Beauty and the Mini-beasts

Emily Robertson

Beauty and the Mini-beasts

The Microbiology and Art project allowed students to use there own interests and skills to explore different ways of presenting information about microbiology. Emily Robertson produced jewellery inspired by the art of AlphonseMucha, Art Nouveau, and the advert of the microscope. She adapted Mucha’s poster designs to present information about microorganisms in different ways.

Emily’s artwork shows three female heads drawn in Mucha’s style but presented as faint background to the vivd ornamentaljewekkery that she has made. Emily’s workbook, describing and depicting the research she did for the final piece, is itself a beautiful item. The head on the left focuses on malaria. The frame around the woman’s profile depicts different stages in the disease, as it affects blood cells, and the beautiful necklace is actually two mosquitoes surrounding an infected cell. The central head is decorated with diatoms (necklace) and nematode worms (hair decoration): microorganisms associated with water. The head on the right wears jewellery representing sporulating slime moulds, with fungal hyphae providing decoration around her hair.

Emily chose microoganisms with complex morphology, as inspiration for her jewellery, but bacteria, being typically rod – or coccal- (spherical) shaped, lend themselves rather well to jewellery design, as other students demonstrated. Student creativity also extended to baking, with bacterial cell sponges, a skin biofilm cake (a biofilm is a community of microorganisms on a surface), and biscuits made to represent food poisoning pathogens being submitted (and consumed)!


Mobeen Ali, Tona Aderibigbe, Ahmed Chowdhary and Ali Hayat


Around half of the world’s population (3.3 billion) are at risk from malaria. Each year, there are around 250 million cases, with almost one million deaths. Malaria is therefore a significant threat to global health. This group of students wanted to use their artistic talents to raise awareness of malaria. In addition to the Andy Warhol-insipred images of an infected cell that are exhibited here, they also submitted a painting of a mosquito, an image of a child made up a repeated images of the infected cell, and a tapestry of the infected as well.

Virus Structure

Naseerah Ali

Virus Structure

At even higher magnifications, the capsomeres, the smaller protein structures that make up the virus shape, can be seen. Naseerah Ali found a colour enhanced image showing the structure in a textbook, and embroidered a sequinned representation. A typical shape of a virus particle is an icosahedron, a 20-sided polygon with 12 vertices (points), with each of the 20 sides being an equilateral triangle . The capsomeres assemble themselves to make up this shape, so capsomeres found on the face, side of vertex of the icosahedron’s structure will have slightly different structures/shapes, which are represented by different colours and/or textures in the embroidery.

The Winter Collection

Odra Noel

The Winter Collection

In advance of this exhibition, a competition was launches through DIYBio and MadLab to find an additional artwork contributed from the general public to sow alongside the student prices and other exhibits.

The winner, from 9 entries, is the Winter Collection, by Odra Noel, depicting a collection of flue viruses. Influenza is a common, but sometimes very dangerous, viral infection that returns each year. An important property of influenza virus is its ability to change its properties by mutation or mixing up of its nucleic acid (RNA), where its genes are. Each time the virus changes, it means that we don’t have the correct antibodies to defend ourselves against it, so a new outbreak of flue can occur.

She says, ‘The image shows that the virus particles are similar to each other, but different:with their own looks, reflecting their own immunogenic characteristics. Different surface membrane proteins and different colours give you a suggestion of similar, but not identical, viruses. And then you switch on the lights. The frame is a light bow, and coloured light shines from behind the image. And the light reveals the RNA inside viruses. The RNA which makes the virsuses what they are, is there, was there all along – but you only reveal it when you shine light. The work consists of two pieces of silk mooted on a frame with back lighting. The piece presents a different image when the light is on or off, and while on the light changes colours (full rainbow) in rotating order. The light is behind the silk, so it is a light-box effect’.

Odra Noel is a scientific artist based in London, more of her work can be seen at