I’d had the E. coli/e-coli pun kicking around my list of cartoon ideas for a long time but had never got round to bringing it to life. Sometimes you just need the right catalyst. In this case, it was @Pupsmd_micro bringing my attention to the Microbe Art competition for International Microorganism Day, part of FEMS, the Federation of European Microbiological Societies. I went out on a limb and did the piece entirely as vector art in Affinity Designer. Again, I’d been meaning to use this medium for ages and have had several false starts at reproducing brain mechanics in this format which have all been screwed up and chucked in the cyberbin. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how e-coli turned out although it still took a huge effort of will not to add some hand-drawn touches at the end!

I’m not a microbiologist but like most biologists, I absolutely relied on bacteria on a daily basis in my research. The humble E. coli bacterium is an essential part of every lab that uses molecular biology techniques to produce recombinant (think of this as ‘engineered’) DNA or proteins. In fact there are many biologists who have little idea of how to actually do molecular biology but still use flasks of E. coli, happily reproducing in warm, nutrient broth, to produce the DNA they need for cell biology or even in vivo experiments. In the public mind though, E. coli is associated with outbreaks of food poisoning, sometimes lethally so. Thankfully for researchers who forget to wash their hands, the common lab version is quite the opposite. It has been engineered over decades to make it a passive recipient for experimental DNA, with all the virulence factors removed, to the extent that it struggles to survive for long outside of a carefully balanced isotonic, nutrient soup. There is a nod to this in the image: K-12 and DH5α refer to the strains used in many labs, certainly the one I used most often. There are so many strains of E. coli that they are not really a single species, this is supported by genetic sequencing but has become so entrenched that it is unlikely to be reclassified any time soon. The pink colour is a reference to E. coli being Gram negative. This is a chemical stain that can be used to roughly classify most bacteria into Gram positive (purple) or negative (pink) based on whether their cell wall takes up the stain or not, with important implications for their susceptibility to different antibiotics.

You can buy this design on a range of cool merchandise at my RedBubble store.

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