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Beautiful bacteria

Bacteria can do a whole lot of things. Two London-based artists have taken advantage of the fact that some types can be rotated in ways that cause light to scatter, creating a visible shimmer inside liquid, to bring a novel imaging technique to life.

Laura Cinti and Howard Boland combined magnetotactic bacteria, which can orient itself along Earth's magnetic fields, with electronics and photo manipulation to create real-time liquid images. They call their interactive installation "Living Mirror," as the manipulated cells form a "living mirror" within liquid that essentially mimics images captured of people.

"Multiple pulsating waves of bacteria can be made to form a pixelated but recognizable image using tiny electromagnetic coils that shift magnetic fields across surface areas," explain Cinti and Boland of the art-science collective C-Lab. "By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, 'Living Mirror' attempts to programmatically harmonize hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture."

The resulting image might not work for a passport photo, but it does represent a rather unusual blend of art and science.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Pixelated portrait

The interactive "Living Mirror" is on display at the Naturalis Raamsteeg 2, the former home of the Dutch National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, through mid-December. C-Lab's novel portrait-making process involves a mounted camera that captures moving images of a visitor. Software translates the images into a pixel dimension corresponding to the final resolution of the physical grid. The real-time mirror images are then created in liquid using an electromagnetic grid that can pull or release bacterial cells.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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A mirror, of sorts

Look closely and you'll see a round display in front of the grid of magnets. The "Living Mirror" doesn't present a traditional mirror reflection. It's more of a giant artistic petri dish in which bacteria is made to rotate in liquid, causing light to scatter and create a visible shimmer.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Magnet manipulation

"Living Mirror" is among the winning projects from the 2012-2013 Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, which highlights the intersection of art and life sciences. Here, a magnet placed beneath a petri dish shows how the bacteria can be manipulated, ultimately forming specific shapes.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Magnet reaction

The "Living Mirror" project took months, and a number of prototypes, to refine. In the early stages, C-Lab artists Laura Cinti and Howard Boland worked on developing a system that could produce a significant magnetic force to pull biomass. Here, fluid reacts to magnetic forces. The fluid forms the artists' liquid media.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Bacteria on the move

Manipulating a magnet beneath a petri dish of magnetotactic bacteria causes the organisms to move in way that creates a light-pulsing effect. The completed "Living Mirror" relies on the same principle.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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On the grid

A prototype of the 3x3-grid the electromagnets used to manipulate bacteria for the "Living Mirror" installation.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Testing, testing

A test setup for "Living Mirror" uses a 3x3 electromagnetic grid.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Coils and more coils

For their novel imaging device, C-Lab artists Laura Cinti and Howard Boland ultimately developed electronic boards to control 252 individual magnetic coils.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Electronic boards

Bespoke coil carrier boards. So many electronic components were used for the project that the C-Lab artists had to set up a small assembly studio.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Mining for DNA

"Living Mirror" involved extracting DNA plasmid from a library of standardized DNA parts. The initial idea was to express fluorescent proteins to enable more detailed visualization of the images.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Artist in the lab

Artist/researcher Laura Cinti of the art/science collective C-Lab prepares a culture for measuring the optical density of bacteria culture. "Producing large volumes of this bacteria is challenging as it is a fastidious organism," Cinti says. Read more about the science of their work in their Lab Book.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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Preparing the Kinect

Software engineer Marco Konijnenburg of Dutch biophysics institute FOM Institute AMOLF and C-Lab artist/researcher Howard Boland test an infrared sensor on the Microsoft Kinect to capture images of faces in the dark.

Updated:Caption:Photo:Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK
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