Microontologies of Art, Design, and Architecture

by Myra J. Hird

When Martyn Tranter, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, forgot his glacier goggles whilst conducting research in Greenland, he discovered something breathtaking. Without his color-filtering eyewear, Tranter encountered a kaleidoscope of mauve, green, red, and brown colors covering ice sheets near Greenland’s Kangerlussuaq region; what scientists have come to informally term ‘watermelon snow.’[1] Algae blooms of microscopic organisms produce the color aesthetic. These blooms, which have also been found in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, are darkening the snow and ice, which is leading to increased light absorption and quicker melting. All told, these ice sheets contain enough water to raise sea levels by 7 meters.

Algae is a broad term scientists use to describe a fantastically diverse range of organisms, from miniscule single-celled to meters-long multi-celled photosynthetic living beings. Algae are photoautotrophs, meaning that they use light – along with chemicals such as carbon dioxide and water – to produce their own food. If you’re into chemistry, algae photosynthesis looks like this:

CO2 + H2O + light ⇒ C6H12O6 (sugar) + O2 (oxygen)

Climate scientists are communicating their increasing alarm at the rate of glacial melt, sea level rise, and global warming. Watermelon snow adjoins several other examples of microorganisms that are both creating and shifting global phenomena. Often, we blame microorganisms for their harmful effects on ourselves, and the environment. And yet, here’s the rub: algae (as well as cyanobacteria and green plants) produce (as a waste product) almost all of the biosphere’s oxygen, on which animals such as humans depend. And this brings into relief what I argue is the central point about these little critters: not only do bacteria precede us by about 2.5 billion years, but they also subtend the existence of all life on earth. The profound provocation is that we utterly depend upon these ‘primitive’ organisms who remain largely indifferent to our perturbations, and whose lifeworlds and trajectories are almost entirely unknown to us.

No wonder we are so fascinated by these enigmatic life forms. We are, after all, them; or they are us. In the long durée, it’s difficult to tell. At the outset of When Species Meet, Donna Haraway details the community of the human body:
I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly out-numbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many.[2]

Haraway’s impregnation by companion species is metaphoric to be sure in its weaving of histories of codependence and production, but it is more than this: a literal enmeshing of bodies and all of their resident companion species from the outset of life on Earth. Every living thing that exists now, or has ever lived, is bacterial.[3] And every being that has ever existed is connected through an unbroken chain proceeding from the emergence of life itself. A number of social theories focus on networks of relationality in an attempt to complexify understandings of power and societal structures. These theories emphasize that things do not require humans to interact with them; indeed, most relations in the universe do not involve humans at all. In other words, things have both an autonomy and force without the need for human mediation.[4]

For a number of years, my research efforts have been directed towards developing what I call a microontology, engaging with sciences of the microcosmos within biophilosophy.[5] My encounters with the microbial strongly suggest that bacteria are the biosphere’s most prevalent and prolific forces, and that, through colonies, they assemble an almost countless array of relations. Most of these assemblages have nothing to do with humans; humans are not even aware of the vast array of microbial assemblages on earth.

A microbial metaphysics, or microontology, attends to bacterial alliance-making in the absence of either human representation or mediation. As such, it draws attention to the limitations of focusing on relationality. At the heart of the relationship between bacteria and all other organisms is a rather staggering asymmetry in which relationships of dependency occur in a single direction. As Carl Woese and his colleagues put it, ‘if you wiped out all multicellular life forms off the face of the earth, microbial life might shift a tiny bit… If microbial life were to disappear, that would be it – instant death for the planet.’[6]

Most organisms on Earth are bacteria: they evince the greatest organismal diversity, and have dominated evolutionary history. Populating this ‘unseen majority’ are about 5x1030 bacterial cells on Earth: that's 5 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 bacterial cells.[7] Another estimated 1018, or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000, bacteria circulate in the atmosphere attached to dust. Bacteria invented all major forms of metabolism, multicellularity, nanotechnology, metallurgy, sensory and locomotive apparatuses (such as the wheel), reproductive strategies and community organization, light detection, alcohol, gas and mineral conversion, hypersex, and death.[8] Bacteria are von Helmholtz’s ‘less glamorous backstage machinery that actually produces the show.’[9] Bacteria sustain the chemical elements crucial to life on Earth: oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, and carbon, and some twenty-five other gases through ongoing (re)cycling processes that enable flora and fauna to thrive.[10] Bacteria not only evolved all life (reproduction, photosynthesis, and movement) on Earth; they provided the environment in which different kinds of living organisms can exist.[11] Bacteria also invented symbiogenesis, the process through which the cells that make up our human bodies were formed.[12] All eukaryotic cells are heterogenomic (their genomes have more than a single type of ancestor): genetically and morphologically, eukaryotic cells are communities rather than individual entities. Indeed, scientists have a hard time separating bacteria in order to culture them (i.e. isolate them from their communities in petri dishes), as Timothy Patterson and his graduate students have demonstrated in their careful and meditative culturing of the amoebae Mediolus corona. The aquarium, teeming with Mediolus, is a sub-visible tribute of sorts to the extraordinary capacities of the microcosmos.

Throughout the vicissitudes of taxonomy, bacteria have generally occupied abject status, mainly as pathogens that are subject – through science and technology – to our control and manipulation. Industry has more recently turned its attention to biomimicry, a term used to describe our attempt to imitate bacterial behaviors in the service of technological development. Biomimicry includes the use of bacteria (patented in the United States in 1972) that eat oil spills, cyanide in water systems, and the production of bacteriophages used in genetic engineering. The Amoebic Workshop is in critical conversation with biomimicry and pathogenization. Both characterizations harbor a sense of control and mastery, the notion that humans will overcome nature’s vicissitudes, and ultimately put nature – in this case the microcosmos – in its service.

By contrast, The Amoebic Workshop emphasizes a non-hierarchical account of evolution, such that bacteria are not defined as ‘primitive’ in order to bolster an anthropocentric outline of humans as having achieved some sort of evolutionary apex. Indeed, paying attention to microbiology means taking seriously an ontology of radical asymmetry among life forms – and, further, between geologic forces that subtend all life, microbial or otherwise – that undercuts popular foci on charismatic animals such as humans, polar bears, tigers, and pandas. It is a far more difficult challenge, as Patterson’s sub-visible microbial aquarium population demonstrates, to relate with critters that seem so remote to the sensoria and concerns with which we are familiar.

Developing from my sustained interest in bacteria, my waste studies research brings into sharp relief the thresholds of humans’ rational control of nature. Bacteria’s proficiency at metabolizing available matter-energy – everything from solar radiation to organic matter, metallic ores to acidic sulphates – makes bacteria critically important when it comes to disposing of our stockpiles of surplus and unwanted matter. Eventually, whatever we stash underground comes into contact with the bacterial life that dwells in the soil; or rather, given a populace of some 40 million organisms per gram, we might say they are the soil. Bacteria do what they have been doing since the Eoarchean era: they figure out ways of metabolizing whatever matter-energy they encounter. Each landfill is, in its own way, a unique bundle of materials, at once an ancient and a novel challenge to bacterial communities. The landfills of contemporary industrial societies include variable amounts and kinds of seven million or so known chemicals (and the 1000 new chemicals which enter into use each year), along with a full spectrum of organic matter, which includes the 14,000 food additives and the manifold contaminants found in our food scraps. The liquid material or ‘leachate’ into which organic landfill dissolves frequently consists of a heterogeneous mix of heavy metals, endocrine disrupting chemicals, phthalates, herbicides, pesticides, and various gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulphide.

The point is that when it comes to what bacteria ultimately make of these and other ingredients, and what in the process they make of themselves, we simply have very little idea. Neither landfill nor waste more generally is the only incitement that human activity provides for the proliferation and transformation of bacterial life. However, the unfathomably rich and complex feedstock that we are pumping underground has a special significance in the magnification of the insensible and the unknown, and its unintended consequences comprises one of the deepest and darkest ecologies of the current material-historical juncture.

At least in some highly regulated western social formations, sophisticated techniques of lining landfills extend the period of containment. However, containment is ultimately imprescriptible, given a long enough time line, raising the issue of how microorganisms in the surrounding soil will respond to the leachate that sooner or later seeps from landfills. Which bacterial taxa are present, which populations will be deleteriously impacted by the specific mix of chemicals they are exposed to, and which will adapt and proliferate under novel conditions are queries of almost unfathomable complexity – questions that are effectively unanswerable. There is no conceivable tally sheet of microbial diversity extinguished against diversification and stratification that is stimulated and engendered.

So whether we are exploring landfills’ deep recesses, vistas of watermelon snow, or the creative assemblages of Mediolus corona, we are encountering a profound asymmetric relationality that incites a complex medley of curiosity, fear, and fascination. The Amoebic Workshop invites us to reflect upon our place within an environment that we neither created nor control, but upon which we wholly depend.[13]

[1] Witze, Alexandra. ‘Algae are Melting Away the Greenland Ice Sheet’, Nature, 535:7612, 2016, 336. http://www.nature.com/news/algae-are-melting-away-the-greenland-ice-sheet-1.20265?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews (accessed 11 August 2016).

[2] Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 3.

[3] See Gould, Stephen J. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (New York: Harmony Books, 1996); and Sterelny, Kim. ‘Bacteria at the High Table’, Biology and Philosophy, 14:3, 1999, 459 – 70.

[4] See Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988); and Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne: re.press, 2009).

[5] See Hird, Origins of Sociable Life.

[6] Woese, Carl R., Kandler, Otto, and Wheelis, Mark L. ‘Towards a Natural System of Organisms: Proposal for the Domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 87:12, 1990, 4576 – 4579.

[7] Whitman, William B., Coleman, David C., and Wiebe, William J. ‘Prokaryotes: The Unseen Majority,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 95:12, 1998, 6578 – 6583.

[8] Margulis, Lynn. Symbiosis in Cell Evolution (San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman, 1981).

[9] How to Think About Science (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, 2007).

[10] Sagan, Dorion and Margulis, Lynn. Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World (Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt, 1993).

[11] Smil, Vaclav. The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

[12] Margulis, 1981.

[13] The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Insight Grant number 435-201300560) in conducting this research. Parts of this essay are revised from Hird, Myra J. The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Press, 2009) and Clark, Nigel, and Hird, Myra J. ‘Deep Shit,’ in (eds.). Joy, Eileen and Bryant, Levi. O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies 1: Objects/Ecology, special issue, 2014, 44 – 52.

Myra J. Hird is Professor, Queen's National Scholar and FRSC in the School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Canada (www.myrahird.com). Professor Hird is Director of Canada’s Waste Flow, an interdisciplinary research project focused on waste as a global scientific-technical and socio-ethical issue (www.wasteflow.ca), and Director of the genera Research Group (gRG), an interdisciplinary research network of collaborating natural, social, and humanities scholars focused on the topic of waste. Hird has published nine books and over seventy articles and book chapters on a diversity of topics relating to science studies.