The silence success must keep

The happy lab selfie, showing our faces of success. Our next set of experiments are in the works.

The initial experiments that Denis and I have performed in the lab have shown hugely successful results, better than expected. Our good results will now be used for second stage experiments to isolate and purify the cultivated agents, for further use. This research will have applications for scientific work in the end, and we have begun to sketch out the kinds of prototypes we will work on next, for an artistic presentation.

When experiments go so well, it is difficult to keep silent about your discoveries, but keep silent we must, for the most part. I can say that part of the installation that we are planning for public presentation will be interactive, so that people can experience firsthand how to co-create works of art with microbiological agents, over time. Part of what we will use to help aestheticize our temporal, interactive art piece will be a natural dye that can be used as a pH indicator: red cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra).

Denis’ colleague, Isabel, spent some time in the lab producing a red cabbage dye that they experimented with using bacteria culture plates with agar. Below are the gorgeous results:

IMG-9670-1 Cabbage dye (the juice from boiled, shredded red cabbage) reacts to acid or alkaline by changing colour. It is its anthocyanins that are responsible for this colour-changing, pH-indicating quality. Wikipedia tells us that, “Anthocyanins… are red or pink in acidic solutions (pH < 7), purple in neutral solutions (pH ~ 7), greenish-yellow in alkaline solutions (pH > 7), and colorless in very alkaline solutions, where the pigment is completely reduced.”

cabbage ph indicator chart
Red cabbage pH indicator chart, that I adapted from one found online.

Many textile artists have attempted to master dyeing fibre with the lovely red cabbage, but alas, it is a fugitive dye and will not last very long. However, it is a wonderful dye for indicating bacterial activity, as many species of bacteria produce acidic environments through metabolism of nutrients (these species are categorized scientifically as “flat sour”). Here, a paper where red cabbage dye has been used as a pharmaceutical diagnostic tool, looks at its capacity to indicate pH, and also how it might change with temperature.

For our project, Denis and I will experiment further with both cabbage dye and a standardized lab-grade dye, Brilliant Blue FCF. Brilliant Blue is a synthetic food dye, which is also “harmful to aquatic life, with long-lasting effects” and cannot be dumped down the drain, according to its product warning label, as well as causes skin and eye irritation and organ damage (yay, food dye!). Obviously my preference is for working with DIY lab stuffs that are harmless, such as the red cabbage dye, so we shall use the Brilliant Blue very sparingly — it is also significantly more expensive than cabbage. My interest with scientific uses of natural dyes was previously explored in my bioart work conducted at SymbioticA (University of Western Australia), where I was experimenting with creating eucalyptus dye to use as an histological stain. Denis tells me that the reason we are using Brilliant Blue FCF in particular is because it stains collagen, our primary research material currently. We will do some histological staining and microscopy soon.

I will give here one hint of our experiment success, an image only: