Dr. Simon Park, Artist And Microbiologist

Dr. Simon Park inhabits the borderland between science and art, but what happens in this lawless place is something akin to science fiction. Park, a senior lecturer of molecular biology at the University of Surrey, explores the invisible world of the bacteria that surrounds us. While a lot of the work he produces is based in fact, there is a project that skirts the realm of myth. His Green Man experiment was a speculative investigation into the possible development of a plant/human hybrid.

The Cyanophyte (proto-chloroplast) SynX14 growing on BG-11 agar. 10x magnification of the photosynthetic colonies.

Park’s trial saw him introduce cyanophytes (photosynthetic bacteria) into his own human cells. The aim of this was to propose a concept of a not too distant future where humanity could create their own energy through photosynthesise. He began the process by creating a culture of different strains of the cyanophytes, these were then trialled so as to see which one would be appropriate for his tests. Having found the suitable one, Park went on to make sure it could bind with his cells.

The loaded Hamilton syringe containing the pINV.SynX14 hybrid cell culture

Once this was successful he took that sci-fi-esque step and injected it in to the back of his hand. The results as described by Park took ‘an unexpected and potentially dangerous turn’. The modified cyanophytes that were injected were more invasive than he thought and had to be destroyed with antibiotics.

Day 1. The initial, small induced photosynthetic lesion on top of my right hand. 10-times magnification. 10x magnification.

Day 5. Five days post inoculation. The invasive and spreading photosynthetic granuloma.

Although The Green Man project had to be terminated with extreme prejudice to prevent Park from turning into the Swamp Thing. It highlights a type of thinking that builds on the what already exists to solve the problems humanity are facing. Park elucidates by explaining that microbes have been around for between 3-4 billion years and they’ve evolved to solve all sorts of problems. So we could quite possibly engineer ourselves to be resistant to various environments and develop features we don’t have at the moment. This is an interesting proposal in a time when it’s very possible that we will soon be able to augment ourselves with technology. But, what if we stayed within nature to alter ourselves? It could be of huge benefit because if we add technology, it and us would will still need energy to function. But in this future that Park is speculating on we could become a photosynthetic human-plant hybrid that produces our own energy through photosynthesis, and vitamins through engineered enzymes. All these theories can seem impalpable to some, just ideas that get floated about. However what Park is doing is experimenting, asking questions and shifting the boundaries of art and science. The potential results of this type of thinking could help alleviate the stress our food systems are under. The knock on effect being less deforestation and less CO2 emissions, two very positive things.

But the main body of work that’s produced in Park’s lab is in fact tangible. With the biomaterial Helion 15 being a recent and brilliant example. This project is the result of a collaboration with the conceptual fashion designer and PHD researcher Victoria Geaney. With Helion 15 the two have created a living lace by imbuing it with a cyanobacteria. Once this bacterium has taken hold in the lace, the material becomes photosynthetic and continues to grow. Strands stretch out searchingly across the material that’s holding it, exploring the world with eery green tentacles. Another intriguing facet to this living material is how it can self weave. This was of course discovered by accident, as all great things are. Park had spent two weeks making sure his experiment was perfectly still so it could grow around an object. But after knocking the experiment to the floor the bio-fabric had become nothing more than a vessel of green soup. This promoted Park to leave the room a little pissed off. However, accidents like these happen for a reason because when he came back 20 minutes later it had miraculously formed into a film again. The microscopic threads had reorganised themselves and twisted around one another to create a new layer. What applications can materials like this have? Instead of 3D printed casts for broken bones, could we maybe grow a material around effected areas instead? Then once the bone has healed it could be taken off and then it biodegrades…the possibilities that open up with research like this seem almost endless.

Living Lace

Dr. Simon Park also curates the world’s largest collection of bacteria that have interesting applications for art and design. Included in this lexicon of the overlooked are bacteria that can create gold, grow as bright colours like purple and green, produce light and act as electric conductors. This assemblage entitled C-Mould, is a database that could and should be called upon by artists and designers. The beautiful aspect to all this research is that it can be found on Park’s website Exploring The Invisible. Here he has amassed all his research and presented it in all its brilliant detail.

Serratia marcescens (red) vs Bacillus mycoides (white and feathery)

Serratia marcescens (red) vs Bacillus mycoides (white and feathery)

“You can write about the microbiome and you can quote figures but people don’t see it. When you visualise it as a beautiful thing, it engages people far beyond what a piece of text can do.” – Dr. Simon Park

Park was also on the panel of ‘Vital Matter, Growing Biological Materials’ at the RCA.

Make sure to follow him on Twitter: @SimonSublime

Words: Josh Plough

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