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Illustration of bacteria

Mycoplasma mycoides illustration by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.
Image: David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute

Written by Sarah Kellett

The eyes have it. Bright, colourful butterflies and birds easily catch our attention. But to visualise bacteria, we need to get creative, and combine art and science.

A picture tells a thousand words. But how many words go into a picture? For molecular biologist and artist David Goodsell, pages upon pages of research go into each artistic creation.

Painting cells

David makes watercolour paintings of bacteria, living things you can’t see without a microscope. He is a legend in the field. Mycoplasma mycoides, a bacterium that causes lung disease in cows, is painted with a brilliant green membrane that brings grass to mind. Inside, bright yellow DNA curls next to protein-builders in purple and blue.

It’s not just a pretty picture. The molecules are not only in the right place, but in the right amounts and with their actual shape based on research. A lot of work goes into each painting, giving us a new way to visualise bacteria. Chock-full of the molecules of life, the picture is as busy, detailed and connected as indeed a cell must be.

You could say that seeing bacteria is more important than watching birds or butterflies. After all, those microscopic bugs make us sick. But before you reach for the antibiotics, not all bacteria are bad news. Bacteria in our gut keep us healthy. In fact, they are more like invisible friends than foes.

The hungry microbiome

Inspired by David’s paintings, CSIRO recently created The Hungry Microbiome, an animation that introduces us to the bacteria in our gut. These hungry fellows chow down on resistant starch and produce the chemical butyrate, the same short-chain fatty acid that gives parmesan cheese its smell. Butyrate feeds the human cells in our gut, and keeps our bowels healthy.

In the animation, green bacteria chomp at balls of starch and release colourful fatty acids, which fall on human cells like gentle rain. By showing us a vision of the unseen world inside our gut, this animation says more than words ever could.

Australians eat more fibre than Americans, yet our rate of bowel cancer is still among the highest in the world. Research suggests that it is resistant starch we should be eating to prevent bowel cancer. “We have a compelling story founded on decades of research,” says Sean O’Donoghue, CSIRO. “We worked closely with [bowel health researcher] David Topping and other scientists to ensure everything in the animation is based on evidence.”

There is so much information out there about what you should and shouldn’t eat. It’s easy to tune out, to think ‘whatever.’ Animations like these can save lives, because they don’t just tell us, they show us.

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Do you think animations and pictures like these could be used in a doctor’s office? Would that be helpful?

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  1. These are great – communicate clearly information that is easier understood than reading complex jargon. I think this would be great to use to share information in doctors surgeries, etc.

    1. Yes, I agree with you there. Pictures do make things clearer, especially when you can interact with them. I read somewhere about a new idea for medical imaging that creates a 3D model of the inside of someone’s body, and then projects it on a screen like a mirror. So you can walk around and see your insides. You (or a doctor) can point at organs and so on. Sounds a bit gross, but kinda cool!


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