Artists Reveal the Bacterial Beauty of the Human Microbiome


"Symbiosis" by Rebecca D. Harris represents the microbiome through hand-embroidered French knots. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

In one sense, you are more bacteria than you are human. At least, you are vastly outnumbered by the amount of bacteria inside you. The human body contains 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. Advances in DNA technology are finally allowing scientists to study these microbial companions in depth, deepening our understanding of how the colonies of bacteria that coexist with the human body—the microbiome— influence mental and physical health. Each one of us has an utterly unique melange of different types of bacteria that can affect our anxiety and depression levels, influence our weight, and serve as protection against disease, among other things.

As a way to help nonscientists understand these organisms that call our bodies home, the Eden Center, an educational charity with a visitor center in Cornwall, U.K., commissioned 11 artists to explore the microbiome through a visual medium. The new permanent exhibition, “Invisible You,” includes a 7-foot-tall bouncy inflatable gut, a paper sculpture of an E. coli bacterium, embroidery of microbial communities on human skin, and a sculpture containing a fecal transplant. 

“We wanted to take people inside their bodies, making the actual concept easier to understand,” Gabriella Gilkes, the Eden Project’s science program manager, tells mental_floss.

Mellissa Fisher’s “Microbiological Portrait” is a sculpture cast from the artist’s face, covered in bacteria from her skin. Image Credit: Courtesy The Eden Center

Brooklyn-based artist Joana Ricou turned belly button gunk into bacterial paintings with her contribution, “Other Self Portraits.” She asked individuals to swab their belly buttons, then wiped the sample on a Petri dish covered in agar, a jelly-like food source for bacteria. A few days later, when the samples had blossomed into moldy-looking colonies of bacteria, she photographed them and added a post-production swirl of color. (All the bacterial belly button portraits are on display on Tumblr.)

"Other Self Portraits." Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

The belly button served as a particularly significant source for the project because of its importance in child development. The placenta linking mother and child may be cut after birth, resulting in our innies or outies, but the mother-child physical link isn't truly severed, thanks to microbes. During and right after birth, microbes are passed from mother to child from the mother’s skin, birth canal, and breast milk. “The microbiome blurs the boundary between generations,” Ricou says in an email. 

Indeed, it blurs the boundary between all people. In her first 60 portraits, Ricou (and her scientific partners at North Carolina State University) identified a handful of the same bacteria common to individuals in the U.S. There are certain bacteria common within groups of people. “This strong similarity marks the microbiome truly as a connector, linking each of us not just to our environment but to all other humans and living things,” she says. 

Image Credit: Courtesy Joana Ricou

Though people may share some of the same kinds of bacteria, your microbiome is as unique as your DNA. Scientists postulate it could identify you as easily as a fingerprint does. And yet we contain multitudes of living creatures. "We are these walking colonies," observes sculptor Rogan Brown, whose cut-paper renderings of E. coli are on display in the exhibit. "Of course it isn't an alien species. It's part and parcel of who you are."

As initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project try to pinpoint exactly how bacterial changes help or hurt our health, “Invisible You” is a reminder that though it may feel like your body belongs to just you, it's a trillion-organism ecosystem unto itself. That's a good reminder that you're never truly alone.