A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine features the work of Zachary Copfer, a biologist and artist who creates portraits of legendary icons such as Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein. One thing that makes Copfer’s work unique is his medium of choice; he employs a type of bacteria known as serratia marcescens that produces a red pigment called prodigiosin. Copfer likens his artistic process to darkroom photography, “…only the enlarger has been replaced by a radiation source and instead of photographic paper this process uses a petri dish coated with a living bacterial emulsion.” A single serratia marcescens bacterium is 0.5 to 0.8 micrometers in diameter (10-07) and up to 2 micrometers in length (10+06). Each one has 100 to 1,000 (10+02 to 10+03) flagella per cell that allow it to swim.
Serratia marcescens has a lively and interesting history. MicrobLog explains that, “Because of its red pigmentation… and its ability to grow on bread, serratia marcescens has been evoked as a naturalistic explanation of Medieval accounts of the ‘miraculous’ appearance of blood on the Eucharist that led to Pope Urban IV instituting the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. This followed celebration of a Mass at Bolsena in 1263, led by a Bohemian priest who had doubts concerning transubstantiation, or the turning of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. During the Mass, the eucharist appeared to bleed and each time the priest wiped away the blood, more would appear. This event is celebrated in a fresco in the Pontifical Palace in the Vatican City, painted by Raphael.”
In 1819, Italian scientist Bartolomeo Bizio discovered and named the bacterium and deemed it non-pathogenic. According to Scientific American, its harmful affects were only revealed in the 1950’s with the US government’s “Operation Sea-Spray,” in which the US Army exploded balloons filled with serratia marcescens over the city of San Francisco in a bioweapons dispersal experiment. Serratia marcescens was chosen because its red pigmentation made it easy to track. The government operation led to a spike in cases of pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
While today serratia marcescens is most often seen in the form of pink muck on shower grout or lining the rim of grimy toilet bowls, Copfer is clearly adding the history of this bacteria by employing it to make art.
To see more of Copfer’s portraits, visit his website, which, fittingly both for the nature of his work and for this Eames Office blog, is called Science to the Power of Art, or (science)art.