Art, Agar, and Antibiotics

Story by Isabel Herstell

Faculty of Science, 2017

David and the Team

A team of researchers at Victoria University of Wellington has been working to re-engineer and improve antibiotics.

Dr Jeremy Owen, Dr Mark Calcott, Dr Katherine Robins and Associate Professor David Ackerley have been working to swap components in and out of existing antibiotics, with the end goal of having antibiotic products that can be modified in a reliable and predictable manner.

“Humanity is described as being in a race against time to develop antibiotics against drug-resistant superbugs,” says Ackerley. He notes that “there are two main ways to address the looming antibiotic crisis,” either “[discovering] new antibiotics, or modifying existing ones”.

When new drugs are developed, there are ways of reducing the risk of the new antibiotic becoming redundant, Ackerley notes.

“More sensible use of the new or modified antibiotics should help them remain useful for a much longer time than the previous generation of molecules: for example, using them in combination, and not over-prescribing, so that even if one form of resistance evolves, the infectious bacteria still die and can’t pass the resistance on.”

Meet the Team

  • <p>"A dorky team photo". Pictured from left to right: David Ackerly, Mark Calcott, Jeremy Owen, and Katherine Robins. </p>

Art on Agar

As part of their research into modifying antibiotics, Ackerley and his team worked with molecules that contain bright pigments.

One of the pigments was blue, while the other was green. This combination of colours reminded Ackerley of a map of the Pacific nations that was on a conference booklet on his desk, and he had the idea of trying to recreate this picture on an agar plate.

Realising that it seemed a bit too “complicated” to try and reproduce the whole map on such a tiny canvas, he and his colleague, Calcott, settled for trying to create a picture of New Zealand and its surrounding oceans.

After a few attempts, with Ackerley’s vision and Calcott’s precise hand, the pair were able to produce a “really beautiful version of New Zealand”.

This moment of inspiration resulted in a photograph of the 'agar art' published on the cover of the journal in which Ackerley and his team described their work, Cell Chemical Biology.

See It Yourself!

  • <p>Image of the agar art which featured on the cover of an issue of <em>Cell Chemical Biology </em>(</p>

Where Science Meets Art

On the intrinsic connection between science and creativity, Ackerley elaborates, “our line of science, like so many others, is unadulterated creativity. We spend virtually all our research time inventing”.

Work like that of Ackerley and his team comes with a prerequisite for imagination when “trying to envisage little biological constructs or micro-machines that will do something interesting: sometimes to address important problems and sometimes just because it is particularly fascinating.”

An Ongoing Project

Ackerley and his team continue their work “discovering and/or producing new antibiotics, and trying to find uses for engineered enzymes in medicine and biomedical research”.

Find the School of Biological Science

Level 5, Kirk Building, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand