'The specks remind me of stars in the galaxy,' says Tal Danino, admiring a dinner plate dotted with what appear to be celestial bodies. 'This really interesting pattern in the centre, that's Salmonella!' Danino is a biological engineer who has collaborated with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and luxury porcelain brand Bernardaud to take a group of photogenic bacterial species from agar to porcelain.
The project began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Danino is a postdoctoral fellow researching ways to program bacteria for different uses, such as detecting and treating cancer. 'At MIT they have amazing toys to play with our ideas of how we perceive the world,' says Muniz, who completed a residency at the university in 2013.
Muniz proposed the concept of 'drawing with little bugs' to Danino and soon the two were creating intricate patterns out of liver cells and cervical cancer cells. 'They look like your grandmother's wallpaper, and then you look closer and you see every nucleus of every cell,' says Muniz, who has previously worked with materials ranging from chocolate and diamonds to rubbish and clouds.
Working with petri dishes, also known as bacterial plates, got Muniz thinking about the real thing. 'Vic said let's make some real plates out of bacteria,' explains Danino. Salmonella was always part of the plan ('perfect for chicken,' notes Muniz), but the stars of the Bernardaud 'petri' collection also include other species, 'mostly bacillus,' adds Danino.
The colourful images that fill the seven porcelain plates began as ten-centimeter-wide petri dishes, each filled with translucent, nutrient-infused agar and dotted with a drop of bacteria in the centre. 'They grow outward, protruding themselves, pushing back their neighbours, eating up the food, and forming these very intricate patterns,' Danino illustrates.
'Sometimes we look at abstraction and all we see are beautiful patterns and colours, but these are abstractions that tell a story,' says Muniz. 'Imagine having a dinner party. Your guests finish their food and admire the image on the plate, and then you tell them it's Salmonella!'