In yellows, oranges and reds, the bacteria’s colors display as living art.
A curiosity about why some of those bacteria almost glow with color has led to an integration of science and art in St. Petersburg College labs.
It started when Shannon McQuaig, Associate Professor of Natural Science, was working in a microbiology teaching lab at the SPC Clearwater Campus. She noticed one of the agar petri dishes was contaminated with unknown bacteria. But what stood out as unusual about the contamination was that it was the bright color.
“When I took a closer look, the contaminating bacteria had a bright yellow color,” McQuaig said. Intrigued, she set it aside for further study. She noticed a similar contamination on another petri dish on another day, only that time it was bright orange.
With her curiosity in full swing, McQuaig did some research and discovered a variety of bacteria that produce certain pigments.
The colors of the bacteria depend on many factors including nutrients, light and temperature. In some cases, those pigments may be extracted and then used to write, draw or paint. Some bacteria even release compounds that glow under ultraviolet light when the microorganisms become stressed.
“I thought, ‘those are really pretty. I have some time – I’m just going to streak these out and let them grow,’” said McQuaig, who is working to sequence the DNA of the bacteria to identify it. “So that’s basically what started it. I got really interested in looking for the rainbow of colors.”
This project led her to apply for her third SPC Foundation Innovation Grant for an interdisciplinary project called Creative Integration of Art and Science. She shares this grant with three other science instructors at the Clearwater Campus who are implementing science projects to encourage students to explore the ways science and art intersect, as well as develop critical thinking skills and exercise creativity.
With a portion of the funding from the $3,477.80 combined innovation grant, McQuaig plans to host a mini workshop for a limited number of students. They will study and grow microbes in the lab from the soil and water samples they collect out in the field.
“From there, we’ll isolate the bacteria or fungus and try to extract pigments, after which I’ll host a ‘painting party’ with the microbe-derived pigments,” she said. Students with microbiology experience will sequence the DNA of the bacteria or fungus to identify it. They also will be able to create “living art” by inoculating agar petri plates with a variety of pigmented microbes.
Her goal is to display the art in a combined art exhibition in January, which will allow students from all the innovation grant’s projects to showcase their work.
“Art and science are very closely related, and so the pigmented bacteria allow us to reach broader populations of people,” said Courtney Cain, a bachelor’s degree biology student at the Clearwater Campus.
Cain was working on an independent project that involves swabbing casino slot machines buttons for bacteria. She then uses DNA sequencing to classify and identify the bacteria on these frequently-touched surfaces.
When she heard about McQuaig’s project, she took a closer look at her own bacteria samples and realized that some contained similar pigmentations.
As someone with a penchant for art, Cain wants to combine her love for science and art to create some artwork for the upcoming art show.
Originally an art education major when she started attending the college in 2002, she had always enjoyed science but never felt encouraged to pursue her interest. Years later when she came back to SPC, Cain got into the science field due to the encouragement of several female SPC Natural Science instructors.
“I felt empowered by SPC’s female staff,” said Cain, who had taken an Intro to Chemistry class and fell in love with the process. “My teacher made it seem achievable to be a successful in science.”
According to the Association for Women in Science, women represent only 24 percent of the workforce in STEM fields. At SPC, the female to male instructor ratio skews higher. Of the 1,404 individual STEM courses taught in fall 2013, 649 were taught by the college’s 204 full-time and part-time female faculty members.
“Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Lara and Dr. McQuaig have been very influential on just pushing me to further my education, to do research and to get a more well-rounded education,” she said. “Their influence is one of the major reasons I’ve decided to stay for my baccalaureate degree at SPC. The fact that we have this kind of research available is so incredible and it’s just a huge opportunity.”