Microbial Arts and Crafts


The microbial world is key to the ecology of the planet today as well as virtually all major evolutionary transitions in the past, but they are mostly overlooked in both these areas in favour of larger animals and plants, with which we have a more intuitive connection to (being macroscopic animals ourselves). Conveying a greater interest in microbial life to non-experts is therefore quite important to us, but it is also very challenging since the “microbial world” itself is a pretty abstract concept to most of us, and also tightly associated with disease, which is only relevant to a small minority of microbial life. Below we list a few projects to try to create a greater sense of interest in microbial diversity using arts and crafts. This includes some short movies about microbial diversity and the people studying it, as well as art shows focusing on microbial forms, and easy instructions to create your own 1600’s Leeuwenhoek microscope (suitable for all ages) that makes learning about and using microscopes more engaging.

The Role of Microbes in the Environment

This is one of a series of short videos we did in collaboration with CIFAR and film maker Wendy Rowland based on our collaborative fieldwork in Curacao. When we think about marine life, we usually think about whales and fish, or other things we like to look at or eat. But most of the life in the ocean (by weight, or numbers, or whatever other criteria you like) is microbial, and these tiny creatures keep everything else alive.

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Marine Microbes - Our Invisible Allies

This is one of a series of short videos we did in collaboration with CIFAR and film maker Wendy Rowland based on our collaborative fieldwork in Curacao. We commonly associate microbes and disease, but this video focusses on the positive roles of microbial life, mainly using the marine ecosystem as a model. Microbes carry out the most important roles in sustaining the oceans, which in turn have a huge impact on the rest of the planet, but we know shockingly little about exactly who they are or how they work together.

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Collaborative Field-Based Research: CIFAR’s program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity

This is one of a series of short videos we did in collaboration with CIFAR and film maker Wendy Rowland based on our collaborative fieldwork in Curacao. The main model for scientific meetings consists of a lot of people sitting in a dark room listening to one person give a polished talk about a finished project. This is arguably the worst reason to travel and gather in one place and promote science, so we experimented with other kinds of “glue” to hold a scientific interaction together, like fieldwork. Over a couple of years, groups of microbial ecologists and evolutionary biologists gathered at CARMABI research station in Curacao, each with independent goals, but agreeing to work together to help with and learn about one another work in the process. For creating connections and collaborations, this was way more effective and a much more efficient use of time and resources than a standard scientific meeting.

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Overview of CIFAR’s program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity

This is one of a series of short videos we did in collaboration with CIFAR and film maker Wendy Rowland based on our collaborative fieldwork in Curacao. For ten years the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research supported a program in microbial diversity, that brought together people working on viruses, bacteria, archaea, and microbial eukaryotes, focusing on topics uniting ecology and evolution, from perspectives across ultrastructure, molecular biology, and genomics. This was a very rewarding experience and the group become very tightly knit over time, for many of us changing the way we think about our research.

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Microbial life are part of the diversity of nature, but can they inspire art? Aren’t microbes just little round balls? They may be good at biochemistry, but are not animals and plants special because they have evolved unique and amazing diversities of physical form that capture our imagination? The answer, it seems, depends on how good is your microscope. When viewed up close, microbes are far from a boring collection of squiggling dots - microscopy can transport us into a parallel world of stunning complexity where microbes play all the leading roles. This world is abstract and far from our everyday experience, but it can be very engaging once you get inside.

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Governor General Lecture Series 2013

Dr. Patrick Keeling, FRSC: Our recent discovery that the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, contains a chloroplast raises an intriguing question. Why would a parasite that develops in the dark within animal cells, need an organelle used for photosynthesis by plants and algae? The search for an answer has played out on coral reefs, and I will discuss our research that has traced back to an ancient evolutionary event where one cell ate another and stole its plastid.

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