Bioluminescent Art: Beautiful Bacteria Glow in the Dark

Art made from bioluminescent bacteria, exhibited in the 2002 Earth Day exhibition of MSU Bioglyphs. (Photo: Rob Wilke/2002, MSU-Bozeman Bioglyphs Project).

What do you get when you add a chemical engineer, a graphic designer and a research scientist? Beautiful art. In a wondrous combination of nature and design, bioluminescent art involves using naturally glowing bacteria to create intricate and deliberate formations only visible when the lights are out.

These three came together to create "BIOGLYPHS," a collaborative gallery at Montana State University-Bozeman.

Bioluminescent Bioglyph gallery
Rob Wilke/2002, MSU-Bozeman Bioglyphs Project

Betsey Pitts, a director of the project and research scientist at the Center for Biofilm Engineering, said the BIOGLYPHS project involved "some microbiology training, imagination, and a lot of petri dishes."

Bioluminescent Bioglyph
Rob Wilke/2002, MSU-Bozeman Bioglyphs Project

This kind of art doesn't use paint or paper. The group "painted" bioluminescent bacterium naturally present in marine environments onto the petri dishes. But bioluminescent art is also different in that it needs to be maintained from start to finish. The petri dishes were filled with artificial seawater agar and glued closed just so with plenty of oxygen and a temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This was all done in an afternoon, and the organisms were grown up and glowing in the dark by the next morning, when the show opened," said Pitts. As the nutrients gave out over time, the light production slowed and then finally stopped — thus ending the exhibit.

That concept of life and death is what drives "Living Drawings," a series of bioluminescent bacteria drawings by artist and geneticist Hunter Cole.

Video: "Her Own DNA: Living Drawings Created with Bioluminescent Bacteria with Protein Music," Hunter Cole.

Cole is also working on a series called "Living Light," in which she photographs people and objects using only the light of bioluminescent bacteria.

Another unorthodox use of art and nature came forth from artist Miya Ando and photographer L. Young. With a different kind of bioluminescence, Ando's exhibit involved 1,000 Bodhi leaves painted with a nontoxic glowing phosphorescent pigment.

Miya Ando Bioluminescent leaves

Ando said the project was inspired by the ancient Japanese festival, Obon.

"It is believed that during this three-day ceremony the spirits of one’s departed family members and ancestors return to the home and are reunited with their loved ones," said Ando. "Lanterns are hung inside the house to welcome the spirits inside, and on the evening of the last day of the ceremony, lanterns are floated on rivers to guide the spirits back to the netherworld."

Bioluminesent leaves floating in water

"There is a beautiful, non-denominational notion of respect, interconnectivity, history and memory that is celebrated with the festival of Obon," Ando said.