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Behind the picture: our gorgeous gut flora

by Guest Author on 11 Mar 2016

Who knew we had such pretty guts? Dr Nicola Fawcett, medic and researcher at the University of Oxford, produced these images in collaboration with photographer Chris Wood to show the importance of bacteria for our health and the issue of antimicrobial resistance. The botanical images are made from common bacteria taken from the gut and stamped in decorative patterns onto agar jelly before leaving them to grow overnight. The photographs are on display at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford until 14 May 2016.

These pictures and captions were originally published on the University of Oxford’s Modernising Medical Microbiology site. Copyright: Chris Wood and Nicola Fawcett, Modernising Medical Microbiology under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

We often talk about bacteria as harmful things. Images in the media, advertising, even doctors and scientists, portray a healthy, desirable world as one free of bacteria: sterile, washed and scrubbed clean.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t true.

Recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to study bacteria in new ways, helping us realise that we wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria – we live together, and often help one another.  One of the most important places this happens is in our partnership with the bacteria in the gut. We provide them with food and habitat. They, in return, help protect us from harmful bacteria, help regulate the immune system so it fights infections but doesn’t get over-reactive (which may stimulate auto-immune diseases), and also affect our metabolism, or hormones, possibly even our mood…

Some people have compared the bacteria that live in our gut to a ‘garden’. A healthy gut is one that is populated with many different types of bacteria, living together – in this setting, bacteria are desirable and beautiful.  Some bacteria are almost always beneficial, some are harmless, and some can be harmful. They all interact with one another, forming an ecosystem in which they compete for nutrients, interact and communicate with one another.

But much like a garden, some types of bacteria can get out of control and cause damage if the careful balance between human and bacterial community is disrupted. For instance, previously harmless gut bacteria can escape the gut and enter our bloodstream if our immune system isn’t working well, or if our gut wall is damaged.

Perhaps, rather than partnership, we should consider the relationship between our bacteria as a mutually-beneficial truce, occasionally broken by both sides when circumstances change.

The pictures feature gut bacteria, grown on colour-changing nutrient jelly plates, stamped in botanical designs. The images explore how bacteria found in the gut interact with antibiotics, and what this means for our health. The exhibition conveys key themes from the Antibiotic Resistance in the Microbiome Oxford (or ARMORD) Study, my research study which looks at the gut bacteria of Oxfordshire adults by studying poo samples to see how factors like antibiotics, diet, travel and contact with hospitals affect the gut bacteria.

Creating this piece has been a lot of fun, and a surprising amount of work. You know the old showbiz adage of ‘never work with children and animals?’ – I sort-of feel the same way about bacteria and art – they seldom behave the way you want them to, steadfastly refuse to do what you expect, and create no end of inconveniences for you by their behaviour.

This work tells me to remember that the antibiotics I prescribe can sometimes cause unintended harm to the gut bacteria that are helping to keep my patient healthy. It tells me I should be careful not to use antibiotics where they’re not needed.

Nicola Fawcett and Chris Wood stand with their pictures.

Nicola Fawcett and Chris Wood with their pictures on display.

View more of the images on the University of Oxford website.

Acknowledgements:

All images on this post are by Chris Wood. If you re-use them, please attribute them to: Chris Wood and Nicola Fawcett, Modernising Medical Microbiology (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0))

 This post has been adapted from a longer post originally published on Nicola’s blog.

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