Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Portrait of a Bacterial Biofilm

Credit: Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter, Harvard Medical School, Boston

In nature, there is strength in numbers. Sometimes, those numbers also have their own unique beauty. That’s the story behind this image showing an intricate colony of millions of the single-celled bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common culprit in the more than 700,000 hospital-acquired infections estimated to occur annually in the United States. [1]. The bacteria have self-organized into a sticky, mat-like colony called a biofilm, which allows them to cooperate with each other, adapt to changes in their environment, and ensure their survival.

In this image, the Pseudomonas biofilm has grown in a laboratory dish to about the size of a dime. Together, the millions of independent bacterial cells have created a tough extracellular matrix of secreted proteins, polysaccharide sugars, and even DNA that holds the biofilm together, stained in red. The darkened areas at the center come from the bacteria’s natural pigments.

Scott Chimileski, a postdoc in Roberto Kolter’s lab at Harvard Medical School, Boston, created this image of a Pseudomonas biofilm—a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2016 BioArt competition—using a standard, professional DSLR camera. He used a macro lens to capture many close-up images of the bacterial colony that he later stitched together on a computer into one ultra-high resolution image. As a result, he’s able to zoom in on the image to examine fine details of the biofilm structure. He can also enlarge the image to print the bacterial colony at 100 times its actual size.

Chimileski specializes in finding new ways to image microbes and their macroscopic three-dimensional structures.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.