Coral Phages: Guardians of the Host or Mediators of Infection?

Photopolymer and Zinc Etching, Chine-Collé, 33×48 cm, 2020

This print is part of the Tidalectics Portfolio, a collaboration between printmakers and marine biologists. I collaborated with Dr. Forest Rohwer from San Diego State University. He is an expert on marine virology. I made an etching on the influential role of bacteriophages in the state of microbialised, degraded marine environments.

Bacteriophages really look like spaceships. They are viruses that exclusively attack bacteria as their hosts. We know that an infection by viruses makes us sick. But we are less familiar with the fact that they also protect us. The etching portrays the two different ways in which a phage can express itself, depending on the level of oxygen and microbialization of its environment. In a healthy, oxygenated marine environment, it serves as an external immune system living in the mucus of corals, where the phages infect undesirable bacteria and eliminate them (lytic cycle, to the left). When the environment is degraded, oxygen-poor and full of dissolved organic carbon, the phage infects the bacteria, but does not destroy them. It will insert its DNA/RNA, and stimulate the pathogenic bacterium to propagate, thus contributing to the microbialized environment. The phage in this stage is called a lysogen (right).

Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria, by inserting their RNA or DNA into the host bacterium and multiplying itself by hijacking the nucleic acids from the host DNA. An imagined video using images from my art. Music based on the nucleotides of phage ɸX174 by Joseph Earnest.

There are so many viruses in the sea and they all have a crucial role in our environment. Dr. Forest Rohwer’s interest in art-science was instrumental in a 2015 Phage workshop, where music students made compositions based on the DNA code of certain phage genomes. I made several videos where I used this music in combination with animations derived from my etching. The photographs used are open-source microscopic imaging of real phages.

Viruses are the most abundant biological entity in marine environments On average there are about ten million of them in a typical teaspoon of seawater. Most of these viruses are bacteriophages infecting heterotrophic bacteria and cyanophages infecting cyanobacteria (Wikipedia). Artwork and video by Eveline Kolijn. Music based on the nucleotides of phage ɸX174 by Nakul Tiruviluamala and Joe O’Quinn.

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