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Antimicrobial Resistance and Bioart

Image credit: Wikimedia
Image credit: Wikimedia
Image credit: Wikimedia

Suppose a very ill man stumbles into Accident & Emergency at your local hospital. He’s shuddering, queasy and sweating – whatever is wrong with him, he hasn’t got long to live. The medical staff elect to give him the strongest antibiotic they have in their store. Unfortunately, even if they blast him with the strongest stuff, it might not be the right stuff, and by the time the correct antibiotic is developed or acquired, the man might have passed away.

Scientists face an ongoing problem in the development of antibiotics. More and more bacteria are becoming resistant to medical treatment. Some bacteria evolve or mutate and become resistant to antibiotics; others survive contact with heavy doses of antibiotics and develop a defence against them. The development of resistance is never helped by poor medical hygiene or the misapplication of antibiotic drugs. The only solution is for an alternative antibiotic to be applied. Particular pathogens can only be defeated by particular antibiotic cures.

However, scientists can’t just pull out a new pill from a collection and hope it works – specific, new antibiotics need to be developed in the laboratory, sometimes from tweaking existing models and sometimes from making drastic changes. To be successful and minimise the chance of further resistant pathogens, “the right drug” must be used “at the right dose, at the right time, for the right duration.” A new, successful antibiotic has to be developed before a newly-resistant pathogen multiplies and endangers a person: so begins the race against time!

The problem of antimicrobial resistance has the potential to trigger crises around the world. The World Health Organisation details numerous cases in which well-known major infections, from tuberculosis to HIV/AIDS, are developing resistance to conventional treatment. Our typical approaches to grave illnesses are becoming less effective, enabling terrible illnesses to survive and contribute to the suffering and death of thousands of people.

Anna Dumitriu is the artist-in-residence of the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford. Working most recently with Professor Maggie Smith and her colleagues at the University of York, she has fused art with microbiology, creating pieces of art using pathogens, viral strands and more, to explore the relationship between microbiology, technology and art.

In a small exhibition at King’s Manor, you can see Dumitriu’s work for yourself as part of the Festival of Ideas. Dumitriu creates artwork to display the process in which the antibiotic pathways of bacteria are edited, using the tiny viruses, bacteriophages, that infect the bacteria themselves. Editing bacteria can lead to developments in making new antibiotics.

Playing from a projector is a timelapse film of the artist’s own white blood cells being infected with bovine tuberculosis. The cells merge with the infection and pulse, rumble and spasm until the merge is complete. In displays on the walls are cloths and panels featuring prints in the shapes of microbial patterns and structures.

Sitting at a desk, Dumitriu creates ‘bacterial votes of offering’. In ancient times, when religious believers wished for something to occur, they might visit their temples to pledge offerings or tributes to their deities, pleading for divine intervention. Using metal plates, Dumitriu carves the shapes and features of bacteria and viruses into the plates. The exact bacterium to be drawn is determined by the nature of conversations the artist has had, sometimes with visitors to the exhibition.

This article was inspired by an open art exhibition by the bioartist Anna Dumitriu, held in King’s Manor on the 12th and 13th of June as part of the 2016 York Festival of Ideas. Dumitriu’s website can be found here. This article was also greatly informed by a conversation with Professor Maggie Smith of the Department of Biology at the University of York.