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Turning cancer cells, bacteria into amazing art (pictures)

An MIT scientist and a Brazilian artist join forces to create a process that allows them to "paint" self-portraits and more using living cells.

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Michael Franco
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1 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Flowers from cancer

Bacteria, cancer cells, and cells infected with viruses aren't usually considered things of beauty, but in the hands of artist Vik Muniz and MIT postdoctoral fellow Tal Danino, that's exactly what they've become. The pair invented a three-part process in which they create an image, get the cells to stick to it, and then print the image using microscopy and photolithographic techniques. Their series, "Colonies," was carried out under The Creators Project, a venture by Vice magazine and Intel that seeks to nurture high-tech creativity.

For this image, titled "Flowers," Danino told Crave: "The 'Flowers' image was created with liver cancer cells called Huh7.5. They are infected with the vaccinia virus, a virus used both as a smallpox vaccine in the past, and one that I have been exploring as a treatment for cancer. The virus infects cells and makes them produce a red fluorescent color. 'Flowers' is one of the few images that are naturally colored in this way."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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2 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

'Mind and matter'

"We started with very simple patterns that would pair something that is in our minds very chaotic, to something that's very orderly, something that is created by the minds of man," artist Vik Muniz told The Creators Project. "But as soon as we started doing that, we felt tempted to try different patterns, like crowds and sports events, traffic jams, circuit boards. It's like somehow trying to pair mind and matter together and seeing what comes out of it."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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3 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Cellular circuit

An image of the circuit board Vik Muniz mentioned. About his collaboration with Tal Danino, Muniz told The Creators Project: "I never would have expected that I would meet someone working with that level of complexity. To my surprise, he could do it, and to his surprise, it was a lot harder than he thought."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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4 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Tiny traffic

Look closely at one of the pair's images and you can see its granular composition -- a result of the assembly of millions of individual cells. When you step back, the image comes into a different kind of focus, as is the case here, with a work of art simply titled "Traffic."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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5 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Liver spots?

This pattern, which is created with liver cells, looks good enough to hang on a dining room wall. Unlike the "Flowers" piece, this one was colored by the creators, not by nature. "The original images look like the black and white photos shown on The Creators Project blog," Tal Danino told Crave. "These are called brightfield microscopy pictures. There are other images in the series that are naturally colored -- for instance 'Flowers' is infected with a vaccinia virus that makes the cells red. And another one of the images is made up of fluorescent colored probiotic bacteria."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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6 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Close-up

A close-up photo of the rat liver cells that were used to make the pattern seen in the previous slide.

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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7 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Microscopic mandala

This image, which is digitally colored like the liver cell patterns, was created using HeLa cells.

According to Tal Danino's website about the "Colonies" project, these are "the oldest and most commonly used cell line from research taken from a cervical cancer patient (Henrietta Lacks) in the 1950s."

About using cancer cells to create art, Vik Muniz told The Creators Project: "It's quite beautiful to have a picture of cancer cells -- something so scary, and so otherworldly -- into something that can inspire beauty [...] For these things to become part of everybody's life, you do need a picture. You need a way to experience. That's a way for artists to partner with scientists -- they can provide a vision."

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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8 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Petri dish portrait

A self-portrait of Vik Muniz made from bacteria.

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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9 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

Liver cell selfie

Tal Danino's self-portrait is made from liver cells.

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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10 of 10 Vik Muniz/Tal Danino

From lab to gallery

Vik Muniz (left) and Tal Danino stand in front of a framed version of their "Flowers" creation. The "Colonies" series has been exhibited on three continents and the creators are donating any proceeds to cancer research.

See related article and video on the "Colonies" series.

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