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Other selves, exploring the human microbiome

Joana Ricou. Other Selves: An Artistic Study of the Human Microbiome.

BioCoder O'Reilly Media. Winter 2015. pp. 29-34.  Free download >>


Bioart Summer Residency at the School of Visual Arts


North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences 


Finger prints and air prints

Me and my other self (selves)

Other self-portrait and Non self-portrait

Other landscapes

Bellybutton portraits







I was originally interested in two ideas: one, that the human body was such an extraordinarily rich environment that entirely distinct populations of microbes existed in different places and two, that the microbiome was generally derived from our environment.  The latter in particular made tremendous sense, that our "fellow travellers" would come primarily from the air we breathe, the food we eat and the spaces we move through.  

Left: My other finger prints; Right: Air print

This first set of prints was pretty exciting.  I hadn't washed my hands in a few hours before I touched the fingertips to the plate on the left.  The plate on the right was left open during the sampling process, working both as an air sample and as a control. 

We are made of many things, and many types of things.  Most of these things are alive, and not human.  Our human and non-human selves coexist, collaborate, compete or ignore each other.



In this series, I explore the human microbiome as another self or as a multiplicity of other selves. The notion that we have bacteria in our bodies is not unfamiliar, although it's usually linked to things that make us sick and things that live in our intestine and help digest our food. But it's not just bacteria, there are fungus, mites, algae and other kinds of eukaryotes. A lot of these are essential to our health and well-being, and it's unclear the extent that they influence how we feel, or the extent to which they are us, too.  We know now a few intense facts: there are 10 times more non-human cells than human ones and more than 100 times more non-human DNA than human.


The first step then was to swab different parts of my body (head, face and hands) and of my environment (the lab: the table, the air, the famed door handle to the room, the cell phone).  The swabs were placed petri dishes (LB agar) and there were allowed to grow in an incubator without interference (37 degrees).  



Left: Other self-portrait; Right: Non-self-portrait

The images above are the result of a digital composit where all the human-derived plates were added together and the same for all the environmental ones. Two conclusions arrived early: although altogether the human plates showed an interesting variety to the untrained eye, it was hard to distinguish plates from different parts of the body.  This is likely due to both the limitations of the technique (it's very hard to reproduce the rich and diverse conditions of the human skin with similar plates) and limitations of the technitian (me).  

The second conclusion was despited rich growth, there really is very little overlap between the human-derived and environmental-derived plates.  



I was curious to explore whether I could encourage this collected microbiome to regrow in vitro and paint a portrait of this other self.   Individual colonies were plucked carefully from the plates and places in Erlenmeyer flasks with more food, heat and agitation to encourage multiplication.  A few days later, the flasks had become a palette of living paints. Each "paint" was identified as belonging to the human microbiome or as belonging to the environment.



The paints were used to create a living self-portrait:  

Other self (the human microbiome)

The result of the portrait was unexpected.  It's known that the in vitro conditions aren't conducive to the growth of the natural diversity of the skin, and the plates showed a milky biofilm without any of the colors and textures of the individual colonies grown.  


See the portrait >

Other self (the human microbiome)

With a powerful camera, surprising organisms were found, forming a strange, alien landscape (right).


Other landscapes >

I was in contact with a few labs that specialize in the study of the microbiome for guidance on this process and they confirmed that my results paralleled was happening in research: a couple of big papers were confirming that indeed the microbiome does not come mostly from our environment, but from our mothers.  We inherit it mostly by passing through the birth canal.  It's not a human-world connection after all, it's a human-human or, better, mother-offspring connection.  We aren't partly our world, as much as we are partly our mothers.

The next step in the process then was to look at the bellybutton as symbolic both of the uniqueness of the individual and its maternal origin.  A series of portraits were created using bellybutton swabs:

Bellybutton Portraits >

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