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The art of science: Small but perfectly formed

by Kurt Kleiner Apr 1 / 14
Saccinobaculus

Peer at the world closely enough, and things can start to look a little strange.

Patrick Keeling, a CIFAR senior fellow and director of the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity, is an expert at looking closely. He’s especially interested in protists – a hugely diverse group of mostly single-celled organisms that have cell nuclei, but that aren’t animals, fungi, or plants. 

In this beautifully detailed photo made using a scanning electron microscope, we see a protist called Saccinobaculus. The name comes from a Huron word for “snake in a bag,” and refers to an organelle inside the protist (not visible here) that thrashes around like a snake and allows the protist to move. The little dents on its body work like little mouths through which it takes in nutrients. 

Now look again at the background. Saccinobaculus is actually resting against a much larger protist called Barbulanympha, which is so much bigger that it looks like a wall. Even stranger, the mosaic pattern of rod shapes is actually made up of many individual bacteria on the body of the large protist. 

Several years ago, Keeling and his colleagues began to place their scientific photographs in large gilt frames and hang them in the hallway outside the lab. They’ve since had exhibits at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum and the Carl Sagan Society for the Promotion of Science at the University of British Columbia. 

“We would like to do a show in a normal public art gallery one day, as an outreach activity,” Keeling says. “I think it could be really compelling if you keep the art show format and pretend the content is not scientific.”