John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
What better place for a giant statue of E. coli?
New York City, especially in its more fragrant 1970s incarnation (not to mention the even filthier 1860s), has long grappled with its reputation as a giant cesspool. So perhaps it makes sense that there’s now a giant statue of an E. coli microbe in City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.
“Earth Potential: E. coli” is based on a 10,000-times magnified electron-microscope image of the fecal bacterium that causes 265,000 infections in the U.S. yearly, with symptoms including cramps and diarrhea. Made from a digital print on cut-out aluminum, it rests in City Hall Park as part of the larger exhibition, “Earth Potential,” by the Estonian artist Katja Novitskova. The show intends to portray “organisms and bodies” that have “significant research value within the scientific community for their potential to advance our understanding of our species and world,” according to the non-profit Public Art Fund. Aside from E. coli, the other pieces in the show include a huge earthworm, a slippery nematode, and a human embryo magnified to resemble a clump of moldy peaches.
The exhibit went up in June but was highlighted this week by Politico reporter Laura Nahmias, who tweeted that she considered the E. coli “[s]uper grosssss, especially in conjunction with the other worm(s) and bacteria on display in City Hall Park.”
To be fair to this particular germ, though, only certain strains of E. coli cause gut-churning maladies; others are beneficial components of the human intestines and boons to science. As the show’s primer explains: “E. coli has been at the center of groundbreaking research: Genetic engineers have used new synthetic biological techniques to recode the bacteria’s genome, potentially changing the organism’s functionality and radically increasing the prospect that humans will have the ability to rewrite the codes for life.”
Still, the folks behind the show acknowledge that this is a microbe with an image problem.“We were well aware of what E. coli does to the human body, but had no hesitation putting it in the exhibition,” curator Emma Enderby tells CityLab. “We wanted to create an alien landscape that was also a very real landscape, with images of things found on Earth. What’s a better alienlike creature than E. coli blown up to this scale?”
And what’s a better place to put it than in front of City Hall? Indeed, Disney-fied modern New York City can use a few reminders that, until recently, this was surely the American city most closely associated with germs and bacteria. (And science is continuing to use the human Petri dish of the New York subway to further our understanding of the city’s microbial residents.) Below, find a few more images from the show, starting with a soil-enhancing earthworm superimposed over a satellite-based image of Earth, a scan of Saturn’s moon Titan with a C. elegans roundworm (the first multicellular being to have its genome digitized), a human embryo that one day might be used in CRISPR research, and some tentacle-tangling cuttlefishes whose intelligent brethren are sometimes studied in the field of cognitive development.