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Image: bacteria art

The Beautiful World of Bacteria in NYC’s Subway System

Have you ever sat in awe, delighted by the sight of bacteria? No? Well, let’s see if we can change that.

Image: Bacteria art
Source: Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil // Wikimedia

So, what is bacteria?

Image: illustration of animal cell, plant cell, and bacteria cell
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Bacteria are microbes; organisms that are too small to be seen without a microscope. Generally, microbes include bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, and viruses. As a group, they’ve been around for at least 3,500 million years and, for a long time, were the only form of life present on this earth!  1

But unlike most other organisms, the cells of bacteria are very simple; containing no nucleus or membrane-bound organelles. 2

Take a look at the illustration to the right and see how they differ from the typical plant and animal cells!

So, why does all this matter to help reframe our understanding of bacteria? Well, it’s helpful in explaining that not all bacteria are horrible. They won’t all cause strep throat or make us sick. In fact, the vast majority of bacteria are completely harmless and even really beneficial to humans. Our bodies wouldn’t be able to function correctly without the help of the bacteria in our microbiome!

Bacteria are beautiful!

Bacteria, both good and bad, live in almost every environment on the planet. “Good bacteria” are in some of our favorite foods, like cheese and yogurt, keep us alive, and enable ecosystems to thrive.

With all these wonderfully diverse bacteria populations living out there, one of the most fascinating places to study them has to be in cities. Take New York City for example, where people from around the globe are visiting daily and bringing along their personal bacteria collection for the ride!

Now, that might gross you out, but remember: not all bacteria are bad. In fact, when swabbed and cultured, the bacterial world can be quite beautiful! And to prove that to you we want to share a video from SciFri, highlighting the work of the artist Craig Ward who decided to explore this beautiful world of bacteria on none other than the New York Subway!

Via: SciFri 3

See, bacteria isn’t all gross! If Craig’s work interested you at all I suggest you check out the interactive map he mentioned from the PathoMap Project. Or, if you are more interested in the artsy side of bacteria, go check out the Instagram of Tasha Sturm, the scientist who posted the photo of her son’s handprint that inspired Craig Ward’s bacteria work. Her images are a stunning example of how beautiful the “gross” things in life can be if you take a second to appreciate them!

At home with bacteria

Now, back to those good bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere, creating their own ecosystems from your gut to your kitchen, and each one (like those subway stations) has its own unique fingerprint!

The University of Oxford decided to take a different route with their studies of bacteria. Their idea was simple but profound: take experiments out of the lab and let people experiment with the microbiomes in their own homes. So, instead of coming up with questions they wanted to be answered, the researchers turned to their community of volunteers to see what questions they had about the microbiome in their own kitchens.

Here’s how the study played out…

Via: University of Oxford 4

So, are you thinking a bit differently about bacteria yet?

Whether through creating art or by bringing scientific research home, making the microbial world visible helps us to understand it better, to fear it less, and come to appreciate how rich our worlds are because of the bacteria around us. Like us, they have complex and fascinating lives that impact the world around them. We have a lot to thank them for!

So, the next time you eat your favorite cheese, snack on a slice of sourdough bread, or wash your hands after a long day outside, take a moment to appreciate the complex (and unseen) world that’s all around you!

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!


This article was originally published July 24, 2018.

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  1. “What Are Microbes?” Utah.edu, 2014, https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/microbiome/intro/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023./
  2. https://microbiologyonline.org/about-microbiology/introducing-microbes/bacteria
  3. “Subvisual Subway: The Art of New York City’s Bacterial World.” YouTube. SciFri, 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 July 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xxqd985bKi8>.
  4. “Good Germs; Bad Germs.” YouTube. University of Oxford, 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 13 July 2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdmejCxWblc>.
Image: Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber


Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and is now the CEO at the Goodness Exchange. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often root-tripping—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV

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