December 18, 2018
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Maine scientists blend science, art to explore the microscopic world of ‘Tiny Giants’

Scientists from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay have recently combined scientific research and fine art to create “Tiny Giants: Marine microbes revealed in grand scale,” a photo exhibit bringing to light the importance of a world invisible to the naked eye, yet crucial to the health of the planet. The exhibit is kicking off with a special event in Boston’s Innovation District on Jan. 15, and is scheduled to come to Portland in March.

“Taking the whole exhibit, we hope it’s a compelling case for paying more attention to some of the smallest things that have an impact on our lives,” Bigelow Laboratory Executive Director Dr. Graham Shimmield said.

The exhibit is a collection of photographs of microscopic marine organisms taken by scientists of the Bigelow Laboratory combined with narratives. Its debut event in Boston is already sold out. The exhibit, however, is scheduled to come to be shown in Lewis Gallery of the Portland Public Library beginning March 6, and will be open to the public for free.

The exhibit’s organizers are also interested in participating in a Bangor Art Walk.

“We study the smallest creatures that drive really important parts of the ecosystem,” Shimmield said. “There’s a range of intrinsic and important things these microbes do, but we’re very poor at bringing to the public’s general attention to why some of the smallest living things on the planet have such a major impact — that’s why we called it ‘Tiny Giants.’”

These “tiny giants” are a variety of microscopic plants and animals — phytoplankton and zooplankton — that are extremely important to all life on Earth. For instance, scientists estimate that phytoplankton provides half of the oxygen we breath, while zooplankton is a source of food for all marine life.

In creating the exhibit, the Maine laboratory teamed up with the New England Aquarium and Women Working for Oceans. Shimmield described the project as a team effort that involved selecting from a large collection of photographs, reproducing the images in a 3-by-4-foot format, arranging the display and writing narratives describing how each organism lives and its importance in the ecosystem.

A big focus of the narratives is how climate change and increasing ocean acidification is threatening microbes and larger creatures of the oceans by essentially breaking down their protective shells and skeletons.

“All marine creatures with shells and skeletons of calcium carbonate are at risk, not just the microorganisms,” Shimmield said. “The shellfish, clams, mussels, oysters, potentially even lobster — a range of creatures will start to show physiological changes.”

The narratives also address how many of these organisms are used for industrial purposes, from the making of beer to inspiring designs for solar panels.

With approximately 80 employees, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science is dedicated to the study of marine microbes, with scientists working in all of the world’s oceans, including the Arctic and Antarctic. They study everything from algal blooms on the surface of the ocean to bacteria living in sediments on the ocean floor using submarines and remotely-operated vehicles.

The scientists of the lab produce photographs on a regular basis for their research, Shimmield said, but it wasn’t until about eight months ago that they started looking at their photos as works of art.

“A number of people have often commented, ‘Wow, these things are actually quite beautiful, aren’t they?’ And, ‘Why don’t we know more about them?’” Shimmield said. “We realized there’s an opportunity here to use an artistic medium to try and convey a message.”

Scientists used three different types of microscopes to capture the images selected for the exhibit, including an scanning electron microscope, which produces digitized images from firing electron beams at a sample. The image comes out black and white, so the scientists working on the project used their artistic licenses to color the images to bring out certain characteristics of the organisms, Shimmield said.

“We’ve tried to convey a sense of discovery through this exhibit,” Shimmield said. “We’re chosen a wide variety of these microbes of different shapes, sizes and colors to convey the beauty and excitement of studying these things.”

To learn about the exhibit, visit the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences website at bigelow.org or the Portland Public Library website at portlandlibrary.com.


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