Bacteria turned into artwork reveal the limits of antibiotics

Bacteria turned into artwork to show antibiotics limit Credit: Chris Wood, Oxford Medical Illustration

An Oxford University research fellow has been creating art using bacteria found in the human gut and harvested from faecal samples. But while the striking colours and plant like shapes may look beautiful, they also illustrate the increasing issue of antibiotic resistance.

Dr Nicola Fawcett is part of the Modernising Medical Microbiology research group at Oxford University, which is working to find out more about bacteria and viruses in order to control and better manage them, ultimately improving people’s health.

She said:

"A healthy, desirable world is portrayed as one free of bacteria – sterile and scrubbed clean. It’s increasingly clear that this isn’t true and that we need bacteria in order to survive. One of the most important places this happens is in our partnership with the bacteria in the gut.

Some bacteria are almost always beneficial, some are harmless, and some can be harmful. Some types can get out of control and cause damage if the careful balance between humans and bacterial community is disrupted.

The artwork was created to help draw attention to the research we are doing into gut bacteria, how they are affected by lifestyle, healthcare, and by antibiotics, and what that means for our health."

– Dr Nicola Fawcett

The work was developed from a mixture of three common gut bacteria grown on a material called chromogenic agar, which changes colour in the presence of different bacteria. Purple shows E.coli, turquoise is Citrobacter, and the dark blue was caused by a tiny amount of a multi-drug-resistant Klebsiella (over 500 times less than the other bacteria). The bacteria were stamped onto the agar, and then left to grow overnight.

Dr Fawcett said:

"For me, this is a reminder that the antibiotics I prescribe can sometimes cause unintended harm to gut bacteria that are helping to keep my patient healthy. A lot of the time, if my patient has a healthy, robust gut, the antibiotic doesn’t cause any noticeable problems. Rarely, it can disrupt the balance so much that one bacteria, Clostridium difficile (or C. diff), takes over as its competition is destroyed and causes life-threatening illness."

– Dr Nicola Fawcett