Other Self Portraits (Bellybutton Portraits) FAQ
About the project
Using the online gallery
About the project
What is this about?
The idea of the project is to create a true representation of each person’s non-human self! We’ve been learning in the past few years that the human body has a tremendous number of organisms that are not actually human - they are bacteria, fungus and different types of eukaryotes. It seems there are 10 non-human cells for every human cell in the body and more than 100x more non-human DNA than human DNA. While in the past we thought that these bacteria were bad - we called them “germs” - we’ve been learning that they are an essential part of our body and of our health. All of the non-human organisms living in and on our body are called the “human microbiome”. Each of us is not just human, we’re a thriving, diverse community of many different things.
Each portrait is created using a sample of the subject’s bellybutton microbiome - meaning, using the bacteria, fungus and other living things that naturally exist in the bellybutton of the person being portrayed. Since the pictures are created using the actual microbiome of the subject, these are self portraits - or better yet, Other Self Portraits.
How are these images made?
Each subject collects a sample of their bellybutton microbiome using a cotton swab. The sample is then spread in a spiral pattern on a petri dish filled with agar, a sugary substance that is great food for our microbes. The petri dishes are taken to a lab where they are stored for 3-4 days at body temperature (they are “incubated”). During this time, the invisible microbes in the dish will start to multiply, growing until they become visible to the human eye. Once they have grown, I take a photograph of the dish. I treat the image digitally to add color in two circles, a smaller one in the center and a larger one covering the rest of the dish. The smaller circles symbolizes the subject being depicted and the larger one refers to our environment, providing a reminder that the microbiome crosses this boundary. Finally, the picture is uploaded to the site microbialart.tumblr.com.
What am I really seeing here?
There are two types of microbes found on these plates, bacteria and fungus. Bacteria tend to look like roundish marks or dots whereas fungus tend to look like tree structures with many branches or cottony fur. Each dot or fungus you see likely came from a single bacterial or fungal cell captured in the swab. That single, invisible cell, divided many times over the course of a few days generating thousands of daughter cells. Eventually, the number of cells grew to a point we could see with the naked eye. When bacterial cells grow in a group, we call them “bacterial colonies.”
Can you identify the bacteria and other things on the plate?
The appearance and number of the bacterial colonies can be characterized according to certain criteria: colony sizes vary from very small (<0.5 mm) to “large” (6-8 mm diameter), colonies appear in either biofilms or as discrete colonies, colonies are either convex or flat, and color range from white to yellow and red. I collaborated with Your Wildlife Project, led by Rob Dunn and Holly Menninger, to understand better what organisms we were observing. Holly helped me to identify the bacteria grown: Micrococcus (Actinobacteria) (white to yellow smaller colonies), Staphylococcus (small white colonies), Clostridiales (white, larger with irregular borders and a more opaque center), Bacillus (white and wrinkly). This was consistent with the study carried out by Your Wildlife’s project, which identified these as some of the most common bacteria found in people in the United States, usually associated with protective functions.
What factors influence the growth of the microbes?
Lots of factors affect the growth of the microbes on the dish. The first factor is the sampling - the step of swabbing the bellybutton determines how many microbes are captured. Some folks may have really cleaned out their bellybutton or maybe they didn’t swab long enough to grab any microbes. In these cases, we may see very few bacteria or none at all. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong - it’s accidental.
The conditions of growth in the petri dish are very limited though. The human body provides a very rich environment with lots of different types of food and a very rich community of microbes. The petri dish in comparison is pretty deserted and mostly serves only one type of food - imagine an empty restaurant serving only one type of candy. This means that only a few types of microbes can really thrive in this artificial environment - they are the hardiest kinds. For this reason, we tend to see similar bacteria across the portraits.
There are other factors at play like providing the right temperature, humidity, etc. One that likely affected some of the samples collected on my last day is time - some portraits only had 2 days to grow and so we see tinier colonies as a result.
Why are all the portraits so different?
Isn’t that interesting? This is why I am doing this project! It seems that the microbiome of each individual is unique, both its genetic composition (the DNA of the microbes) and the general set of microbes found (what types are present and in what amounts). It is thought that, in the future, the microbial “signature” of a person could be used as a means to identify them.
These portraits use a very simple technique that hides the true diversity of each person’s microbiome - we really only see a tiny fraction of what may be living on each subject (see Why are all portraits so alike?). The portraits continue to be different for artistic reasons: the mark made in each dish while always following the spiral pattern, is alway different; and the microbes themselves, the main creative collaborators, decide for themselves where and how to grow.
Why are all the portraits so alike?
I also find this very interesting, and it’s the second reason for why I am doing this project! There are two main reasons why the portraits look alike. The main reason is that most humans across the world share similar microbes. Our microbiome then truly connects us to each other - perhaps in a more literal way than we ever thought!
The second reason is that the technique I use to make these portraits limits what can grow on each one. We described this in biology as "a strong selective pressure". In other words, the technique I use is pretty harsh on our microbes, so we only the few, hardier organisms (primarily bacteria) survive.
The technique I use for these portraits is based on the techniques used by scientists studying the microbiome in the lab, but it is a simplified version. The human body is a very rich and varied environment with lots of different types of food and a very diverse community of microbes. It’s difficult to replicate that condition in the lab. Scientists develop a tremendous variety of “growth mediums” to try to artificially recreate this experience in a petri dish, but it’s hard for one dish to provide everything that the body provides.
In this project, I chose to use something called agar, a jelly-like substance that is essentially sugar. Many bacteria like to eat agar so it’s usually a good bet to encourage growth when you’re not sure what you might have in your dish. In comparison to the body though, an agar-filled dish is still a very poor environment. There are a series of hardier bacteria on most of us that especially thrive on agar though so we usually get lucky and see these grow quite happily.
Are there any privacy concerns with this project? How do you protect the anonimity of your subjects?
Scientists think that information about our microbes could be used one day to identify individuals just like use fingerprints today. One day too, we may be able to learn a lot about an individual, like their health, by studying their microbiome. While we're not quite there yet, all scientific studies of the microbiome go have a series of regulations in place to protect the identity of participants. In this project, a mix of art and science, the amount of personal information is virtually null but I believe that it should afford the same protections. For this reason, no full names or contact information is recorded in association with each sample. Each sample is associated only with the first name of the subject, the location where the portrait was taken and date - and only with permission from the subject.
Are these the natural colors? How did you choose these colors?
No, the natural colors of the bacteria vary between whites, yellows, oranges and rare pinks (salmonella!) and reds. Ssee some examples of natural colors in the photos here. The pictures you see in this project have very strong colors because I added two circles of color to each sample. The smaller circle suggests the subject of the picture, and the outer circle suggests the surrounding landscape in the picture. I felt this was important because our microbiomes are strongly influenced by our surroundings. The specific colors used where chosen to best fit the the composition created by the microbes.
Using the online gallery
Can I get my portrait off your site?
Yes, all the photos here can be downloaded for private use. Feel free to print it out and put it up! One suggestion to share your “other self” is to hang the photo at the height of your actual bellybutton. This looks particularly fun when your partner or relatives got theirs done too!
What can you learn about me by looking at my portrait?
I can't learn much about each person besides looking at the general appearance of the microbes and noting what general types of bacteria or fungus they might be (see more about identification here). The portraits don't really capture much detail about the specific person (see why are the portraits all so alike?). Specifically, I cannot identify any health issues about your bellybutton :)
My name is missing or is mispelled. Can you fix it?
I’m sorry! Keeping track of all the samples was tricky. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the first name of the subject and the appropriate code (should be in the form “EP123”) and I will update it.
I can’t find my portrait. Can you help me?
Again, sorry about that. A few samples didn’t make it onto the web site for one of two reasons: either because nothing grew or because the plate was damaged. Make sure you search both by your first name and by your code (if your portrait was done at the Eden Project, it should be in the form “EP123”).
How can I get a portrait done?
E-mail me your contact and I’ll let you know when the next event or opportunity occurs.
How can I add a question to your FAQ?
E-mail me your question at email@example.com or on my page on Facebook!
Smile! Each subject swabs their bellybutton to collect some living microbes.
The sample is spread in a spiral pattern onto a petri dish filled with agar.
The individual dishes are incubated at body temperature for 3-4 days.
Subjects encourage their microbes to cooperate - without their help, there will be no portrait!