Thursday, 6 June 2013


The blog's been a little quite lately due to exams and other things that me and Jessica have had to attend to after the end of the Easter, however, I'm now making a rather overdue post to document some updates of our progress.

The Algae Plates

The plates have really taken off and are starting to grow really nicely. Annette did some new ones as well which really show off what the algae can do when applied more thickly. The red and green varieties gave quite different effects. The single celled green type seems much more effective for defined lines and grows much faster than the filamentous red type. The filamentous variety does also have quite a nice look in the right context and the two types seem to grow quite happily together.

Below are two quite bad attempts of drawing cats with algae! The different properties of the algae types are quite well shown here. The red filamentous type has very little of any kind of defined line.

The Algae Tubes

Annette went down to the glassblowers to see whether she could turn the old test tubes into hang able ornaments. As shown from the pictures below, it was indeed possible to fashion a small loop on the top of a tube so it could be hung up. It was however impossible to make them into rings like I had suggested because the heat would destroy the algae if applied that close.

In the initial trials the procedure also failed because the algae were destroyed by reacting with nitrogen which resulted in it losing its colour. This problem was solved by back-filling the tubes with argon. Argon being a noble gas is very unreactive and prevented this unfortunate bleaching effect from happening. The tubes were then sealed and a loop was added. Despite not being rings, I still think they're effective and remind me of wind chimes. They could be interesting to use in some sort of mobile.

Later on, Annette went back to the glassblowers to produce many of the tubes returning with fantastic results! Below are some photos of the finished products. Note all the different colours that the algae are capable of producing.

Other Algae Tests

The algae in the sphere by this point seems to be unfortunately losing its colour. This is probably because it has run out of nutrients to grow on.

The algae didn't take to the tube at all for some reason. This seems peculiar because algae often seem to grow in unwanted places and on plastic all the time when you don’t want it to! All I can speculate is that because this tube was for brewing, perhaps it’s been treated so that algae wouldn't grow on it as this would be problematic for its actual purpose.

Growing the fungi on agar plates seemed to be quite successful. The fungi grew better when the lids were removed.

Fascination of Plants Day

Below are some pictures Jessica took from the Fascination of Plants Day to show our finished flower and bee on display. Unfortunately I couldn't be there but I'm hoping to attend the Festival of Nature sometime this month.

Lastly, sadly we had no positive response from the ants. For an unknown reason they did not burrow in the gel, so unfortunately we have no pictures as of yet of this trial.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Last Weeks Overview (April 22nd-26th)

Due to term time having started, we unfortunately have a significant reduction in the time which we can dedicate to the project. We are however still continuing our progress whenever we can spare an hour to do so and this post is for the collective progress of the last week.

Algae Updates

On Tuesday we went to visit Annette to see how the algae plates were progressing. The drawn lines were certainly showing up and we were told that underneath the microscope filaments and small amounts of colour were starting to become visible. Unfortunately, to the naked eye there was very little to no colour in most of the plates so far, but it's a good start. When the algae were drawn onto the plates they were spread very thinly, so it's likely they just need a bit of time to become more established. We will come and check on their progress again in a week’s time and for now, left all the plates to grow in the lab as it was warmer than the basement. They would probably grow slightly faster in this environment, although so far the different locations had shown a very negligible difference in growth.

The algae grown in the flasks were also showing progress. Below is a picture of one of the flasks in which the algae is beginning to grow in a swirling pattern.

Annette also showed us some very interesting test tubes, where after old algae had died after around a year, the pigments had broken down to form a pretty splendid array of colours. 

The red algae, which are in life quite brown, had formed very bright shades of pinks and purples, while the green algae had formed shades of blue and turquoise. These colours had stained the glass around where the top of the solution would have formally been and had formed some very interesting and pretty patterns. These colours would be mostly permanent accept for been possibly faded by the sunlight over time and as they were dead, little maintenance for a display would be necessary.  Annette said that they could be sent to the glassblower to remove the desired sections of the tubes and I thought that they could be made into rings or beads. For the spheres they could be made into beads and then threaded through an internal connection of wires within the sphere.

 Annette also told us about this...
Another situation of where algae have been used in containers to make a sort of artwork.

We also put algae into our plastic tubing this day. It was filled up completely and then in around a week’s time, it will be drained. By this time a sufficient amount of algae should have started growing on the plastic itself and we can observe its progress over time.

The largest type of pipette was used to fill up the tube. The tube itself was held in a container with the ends upright so that the algae wouldn't leak out.

Other Progress
Work on the flower and bee model continued throughout the week. By the end the bee had almost reached completion, but the flower still has some work left to go. Pictures of this progress will be uploaded next week.

And lastly, Jessica made this video of our progress and I forgot to link it in the last blog post of two, so here's that and apologies for the short post!

^watch, watch, watch!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Days 14-15 (April 18th+19th)

Making the Flower

There’s not a lot to say about these two days accept work, work and more work! This Thursday and Friday we dedicated almost exclusively to producing the large model flower and bee for the Fascination of Plants day and Festival of Nature. Below are some photos of our work in progress.

I was tasked with making all the flower's petals which I managed to complete on the first day. Every petal had to be painstakingly cut out, machined and then hand stitched to give a ruffled effect.

Jessica made a wire frame for every petal which could be inserted inside so that they could all be internally connected and not flop. Here I'm applying some pressure to the flower’s centre to make the petals stand more firmly. We'll have to find a way to devise this look permanently when all the flower parts are finally attached together. The UV paint arrived on Friday and so we did start to use it to paint the petals, however, it was unfortunate that despite our efforts the paint did not take well to the petal’s surface. It did disappear and caused barely any change in texture which is what we wanted, but as the petal material was not at all absorbent the paint was very reluctant to stick to it, giving some very ugly paint streaks rather than a smooth covering. Furthermore, we only had a small UV torch to help us see where paint had been applied and it didn't work too well to show up the colour, therefore we were left to mostly paint away blindly. Also, we hope it’s not the same under a UV black light, but the colour seemed to be more pink than red which was a little disappointing. We decided to give this task a break to see if we could devise a more practical way of doing it later.

Jessica took on the responsibility of producing all the underlying wire structures. She also made this stand. On the left is the wire structure, the right the finished stand which is covered with felt. It's designed to be able to contain a small heater so that the flower will show on infra-red cameras as well as in ultra-violet light, again replicating a real flower.

Here I'm making the flower’s centre. First of all I sewed some of the left over white material to a wire structure made by Jessica. I then painted the surface yellow and cut in half many small polystyrene balls so that they could be stuck to the surface to mimic the bobbley appearance of a daisy's centre. Unfortunately, we grossly underestimated how many we would need, so we'll have to buy more later.

At the end of the two days this was our progress so far on the flower part of the sculpture, we will be continuing next week.

As for the bee, its fluffy body was cut out and sewn. We decided to discard the internal wire structure this time as it was becoming a bit of a hindrance, and instead decided to opt for stuffing it with the left over fabric. We also started making the legs and a band for the middle to distinguish between the bee’s abdomen and thorax.
Here is one of the bee's wings made from wire and a light, transparent fabric.  
Other Events.

As well as constructing the flower, a few other things happened in the last couple of days. One was that the ants finally arrived and we put them in the farm. The instructions however did say that the ants would not start burrowing for 48hours, so we’ve yet to see any progress. We'll return to check on them next week to see how they're doing.

The ant farm empty.

The ants exploring their new home.

 The fungi in the agar plates also appeared to have started growing.

And lastly, our plant from the botanic garden seems to be stretching towards the light!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Days 12/13 (April 16th and 17th)

Day 12

First thing this morning, Jessica went to some of the departments within biology to take photos of their work. The purpose of this was to give us some further inspiration by collecting information on some of the current research. A lab Jessica visited was investigating the wheat genome and there she took photos with Mark Winfield of a next generation sequencing machine for PCR. The plating and sequencing rooms were kept separate to help ensure that there was no cross-contamination. It was an interesting insight into how technology has progressed, from once only been able to sequence 100 samples at any one time to 1500 samples. Further details of this plus the photos from all the research we've managed to get a glimpse at will be compiled in its own post.

After this Jessica went around the gardens to take pictures of different flowers, textures and colours to help us get some ideas for what type we would use for Heather's model.

 A sample of the flower photographs

In the afternoon we went for our appointment with Annette. In our absence she had produced 3 new spheres, this time ensuring they were completely dry on the inside, but she hadn't autoclaved them to save time.

One of the spheres Annette swirled agar around to try and make a pattern and then inoculated it with algae; the second, she dotted agar onto the glass and then inoculated the dots. This was practically quite difficult and many dots were missed as she simply couldn't reach them. To help solve this problem, the third flask she mixed agar with the algae before hand and dotted it onto the glass. It did however make the agar have some problems setting.

Aside from these experiments with the flasks, Annette had very kindly prepared us 20 plates (half at a 1.2% concentration and the other half at 1.4%). With these plates we would use various tools to spread algae into artistic patterns. We used two types of algae, a red species called planktothrix and a green kind called microcystis. The microcystis is in essence a weed, a hardy species that would more a less grow on anything. Therefore the agar medium we used was suited for the fussier planktothrix.

The workspace we were provided with. Tools would be dipped into alcohol and then heated in the Bunsen flame to sterilize the equipment before use with the algae.

Drawing tools included glass rods and hockey sticks, as well as a metal loop. This tool was prone to tearing the agar if not used with care.

 Us posing for a photo before beginning our artworks.

Dropping algae onto the agar plates. A sterile pipette was used.

After playing around with what sort of effects and precision we could attain, we sealed all the plates and split them up to grow in two different areas. We mixed them up randomly and set half on the windowsill in the lab and the other half in the growth room in the basement. The growth room was kept at 15 degrees and was constantly lit, so the conditions were very controlled. Annette predicted that the algae would probably have started to grow by Tuesday next week, so we arranged to meet up with her at 1pm on that day to check on their progress.

Plates in their respective locations (first image in the lab, second in the growth room).

The mushroom kit also arrived today. Annette gave us some plates to test some of the mushroom spores' growth in agar, as we thought this would look more attractive in a sphere than the growth material in the kit. One of the mediums was BG11, a multi-nutrient agar. The other was Chlorella soil extract. The material in the mushroom kit itself was quite fussy in how you had to prepare it. We needes to add 3 litres of boiling water to the mushroom substrate and leave it to cool down for 8 hours before the spores could be added. We decided to do this and leave it over night for the best use of our ever dwindling time!

The mushroom growth medium. It looked like rabbit straw you'd buy from a pet shop.

We also researched and ordered some invisible UV paint for the flower model. In order to buy the paint we needed to pick a colour, and for that we had to make a final decision on what sort of flower we would try to recreate. The UV paint was advised to be used on as pale a service as possible, so we decided to choose something with white petals. The paint was also very expensive and so as to remain within budget, we wanted a flower which wouldn't be too lavish in its UV paint requirements. We eventually decided on 'Tripleurospermum maritimum' (shown below), which fulfilled our criteria very well.

 The flower we selected in visible and UV light. Image from:

Other errands of the day involved arranging a meeting with Penny at the botanic gardens to look at some climbing plants at 2 o clock tomorrow, and while waiting for the water to boil for the mushrooms, I started to make a little sample of modrock fish scales to use up some more of the paint and make use of the glitter we'd bought earlier. This idea was inspired by some of the fish we had seen at the zoo. There had also been much discussion about the material we would use to make the model flower. For awhile, thoughts had swayed back to using plaster as we were without adequate sewing equipment, adequate paint for use on fabric, or adequate time with which to experiment. However, we did conclude that using some sort of fabric or plastic would give the best effect and decided to meet at fabric land at 10am the next day to look at some options. 

Day 13

This morning we went to fabricland and found some very suitable material for both the flower and the bee. The material we bought for the flower was some white faux leather. It didn't give the floaty, light appearance of flower petals but we did feel it would take the UV paint well, so it was a good compromise. This did however give us the problem of where to obtain sewing equipment. Jessica luckily had some pins, needles and some thread but we were lacking any fabric scissors or a sewing machine, essential for the amount of sewing we were intending on doing. Luckily, the faux leather in any case was a material that didn't fray and responded reasonably well to the cheap scissors we had (although I am yet to see how the bee’s fur fabric will react), but we still had the problem of locating a sewing machine. After asking around, I was advised to go to the drama department as they would be the most likely place in the university to own one. I paid a visit but they were unable to help me out at all as they were quite busy, there was however a very nice girl who had a sewing machine she was willing to lend us. Thank you so much Antonia! You saved the flower making project!

Returning to the mushroom growing solution of yesterday, the water could now be removed from the straw bag. Holes were made in the bottom of the bag and the water was allowed to drain for half an hour. After this, the spore mixture was crumbled and then mixed thoroughly through the substrate. Six holes were cut in each side of the bag for the mushrooms to grow out of and then it was all packed back into its box to keep the environment dark and the inner bag lining moist. Spores were also added to the agar plates and also put into the box.
The bag of spores.
Prepared agar plates

 I also finished the quick little fish scale model I was making. I simply painted it with metallic paint and then poured on glitter, shaking of the excess.

After lunch, Jessica went up to the botanic gardens to meet Penny where she was taken around the greenhouses. Many of the viewed plants were not suitable for growth in the spheres as they required a very humid environment. There were however some possible candidate species in the temperate greenhouse as these grew at more suitable temperatures.

We were given two cuttings of a plant called Tradescantia. This is a very fast growing plant that we hear likes to climb around anything and everything. We hope to see the cuttings grow relatively quickly in the lab.

Our cuttings.

Meanwhile back at the lab, I was working on experimenting with how to make hte flower petals. I hand sewed a petal and put in some ruffles to try and mimic as much as possible the appearance of the flower in the photograph. The material is very unsuitable for putting in ruffles, but as i mentioned before, it was a comprimise for what material would best take the UV paint we had ordered.

Sewing the petals.

Finished test petal.

The petal turned out reasonably good, though i thought for the next time I'd make the pieces bigger, particually in the width as this would allow for more ruffles. We finished up the day with general model making and plans for how we would set about constructing the flower and bee properly which will start tommorow.