Microbiology: It’s Pretty!

Luke Jerram's intricate glass sculpture of SARS

Luke Jerram's intricate glass sculpture of HIV

Luke Jerram's intricate glass sculpture of a Bacteriaphage

These delicate and “oooooh pretty” glass sculptures are actually quite terrifying. Why? Because they represent some very nasty stuff– bugs- that have cause a lot of people a lot of pain. From top to bottom, Luke Jerram has made for us the SARS corona virus, HIV and (my personal favorite) a bacteriophage. Bacteriophages work by attaching to the surface of bacteria, drilling through the bacteria’s wall and injecting genetic material from the portion of the bacteriophage that looks like a head. It’s like a terrifying, microscopic hybrid of a spider, a needle, and the baby head from Toy Story.

It is significant that these are made of glass, and not something else, for a few reasons. For starters, science labs use a lot of glass. Not as much as they used to, since disposable plastics have invaded many bench tops, but glassblowing used to be an indispensable skill for microbiologists. Another reason, and I did not realize this until I read it on Jerram’s website, but viruses are too small to have any color. That is, the wavelength of light is larger than a virus. All the color on the images from electron microscopes is made up: some are colored for scientific reasons and others are colored just to look pretty. So even though the viruses rendered in glass are in ways more accurate, they’re also, in a strange way,  prettier.

Editor’s note: Related but different, here’s a great piece on the micro bacteria which lives on the human body, and how they outnumber your cells by ten to one / Found via Kottke

January 27, 2012 / By