20 August 2007



so there i was. the last stop on my trip, and my first time doing artwork in a biology lab. i was meeting with martin bay hebsgaard, a PhD candidate in ancient DNA and evolution at the niels bohr institute at the university of copenhagen. i was put in touch with martin by sarah stewart johnson, a PhD candidate in planetary science at MIT, and a primary researcher on the siberian bacteria. working with eske willerslev, director of the ancient DNA group, sarah's research is about to be published by the proceedings of the national academy of sciences. their remarkable findings show that the bacteria were not lying dormant in the permafrost, but rather showed continuous DNA repair -- an indication that these ancient cells have been continuously living. for how long?

folks, we have a winner. 400,000 to 600,000 years.

these findings are particularly interesting to sarah,
who is working on a dissertation entitled "mars in the late noachian: evolution of a habitable surface environment." her findings here on earth raise the point that similar discoveries of viable ancient life are possible on mars or europa (one of jupiter's moons) if ever such life did in fact exist there. um...wow.

but back to the earth. first stop, the freezer. it was packed with soil samples from canada, hungary, and siberia. i only needed a small quantity to view under the microscope, so we headed into the clean lab (kept clean with UV light and positive air pressure) in our white safety suits.

yep. that's yours truly.

it was hot as all get-out in there, so thankfully i could do the actual work en plein air. well, outside of the suit, at least. martin carefully transfered a small amount of the soil into another container, which we would take with us to a different building to take a look under the microscope. henirk glenner, a colleague of martin's, allowed me to use his digital imaging setup to photograph. it works like a regular microscope -- we prepared slides, adjusted the magnification, focus, and light -- the only difference being that a specialized digital imaging component is attached both to the microscope and a computer. an imaging application allows you to see what's under the microscope on the screen, make exposure adjustments, and then capture the image. i was transfixed for days, changing views and settings and magnifications.

the research done on this bacteria (class: actinobacteria, many within the order micrococcaceae and genus arthrobacter ) was not done visually, so i likely produced some of the first images of it -- or at least where it lives. it was difficult to tell what i was looking at, and i probably needed magnification powers beyond what was available. not to mention the question of how long the bacteria can survive at room temperature. so i created images according to my own aesthetic choices within the given scientific parameters, leaving some questions unanswered.

it was a thrilling last stop on a truly eye-opening trip.

oh, and i want a microscope.

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