Agar art - 'Finding Pneumo' by Linh Ngo

This week I learned: agar art, Japan’s senior citizens behind bars, and the strength of spider silk

This week I learned how to make art with microbes, why so many older Japanese women prefer to be in prison, and about the amazing possibilities of golden orb-weaver silk.

A note for any arachnophobe readers – the last of these pieces contains no imagery (unless you follow the links), but plenty of spider-related text, so I leave it to you to assess your level of OK-ness with that. I’ve placed it last so that you can still read the rest of the post if you want to.

The beautiful world of agar art

When I think about the array of mediums available to aspiring artists, microbes don’t generally comes to mind. But the American Society for Microbiology has changed all that. Since 2015, their annual Agar Art competition has invited submissions of artwork created entirely using microbes on agar plates.

To create the art, scientists both professional and amateur choose bacteria and other micro-organisms that will produce the colours they’re looking for, then have to painstakingly “paint” them on to agar plates in the shapes of landscapes, coral reefs, starry nights, brain cells, or anything else that inspires them. Then the plates are placed in an incubator for the microbes to grow into the desired forms and colours.

Since the artist is working with living organisms, which can interact with the each other and with the agar medium in complex and unexpected ways, it takes a great deal of trial and error to produce a finished image – but the results are, frankly, stunning.

Original source: ART on Facebook

When life is better behind bars

Japan is facing an unexpected crime epidemic: shoplifting by older women. Since 1990, the percentage of Japanese criminals aged 60 and over has risen from less than 5% to a startling 25% of offenders. Today, almost one-fifth of women behind bars are senior citizens, most of whom were convicted of minor shoplifting offences.

Why have so many older Japanese women turned to a life of crime? In many cases, because they prefer to be in prison. Japan has the world’s oldest population, and nearly six million of these senior citizens live alone. The culture of Japanese elders being cared for by the community has eroded over the years, with 50% of welfare-receiving households belonging to the elderly – 46% to elderly people living alone* – and even those who have family to look after them report feeling that their younger relatives just don’t understand them.

In prisons like Iwakuni and Tochigi Women’s Prisons, older women report that they find community, that they feel looked after, and that they can live in relative comfort. In prison, they have staff to help them when everyday tasks like bathing and toileting become difficult, and a guarantee of three good meals a day.

Many are repeat offenders: women in their seventies and eighties stealing strawberries, cold medicine, or coffee in search of a return to life on the inside.

Original source: Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women

*Usually I would reference the original source, not Wikipedia, but in this case the original source is in Japanese.

The spider that might save your life

Golden orb-weavers are better known to many Australians as “Oh my god that spider is huge!!”, but their size isn’t the only impressive thing about them.

Those less inclined to run away at the sight of a giant spider hanging at face height might h ave noticed that their webs are made not of the usual silvery spider-silk, but have a distinctive and beautiful golden sheen – the source of their name. And anyone who has accidentally walked into a golden orb-weaver web can tell you that their silk is extremely strong.

Now honours researcher Genevieve Kerr is investigating the possibilities for using golden orb-weaver silk to replace synthetic materials in surgery. Stress testing has shown that the silk these spiders use to frame their webs – their dragline silk – is up to a hundred times stronger than the materials currently used in sutures and stents, and to replace ligaments, tendons, and even your skin.

There are challenges to be overcome – spiders are nowhere near as easy to farm as silk worms, and not just because of the freak-out factor – but if golden orb-weaver silk can be effectively harnessed, the possibilities extend beyond the medical world: it could be used to create a fabric lighter and tougher than Kevlar. Clothing made of spider silk could be the future for motorcycle safety – and could potentially even be bulletproof.

Original source: The golden orb-weavers web could be used to make bulletproof clothing

Featured image ‘Finding Pneumo’ by Linh Ngo, used with permission
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