Visualizing A Global Population Explosion With Bacteria Cities

These glowing “biomaps” simulate the enormous problem of human population growth at a more manageable scale.

It’s hard to imagine what cities might look like in the future if current population projections prove accurate. There are already 7 billion people in the world, and many of these people are crowded into a few places. Estimates say there could be 11 billion people in the world by 2100.


We’ve featured the work of Terreform, a nonprofit design group, before. It likes unusual approaches, as its designs for a flood-resistant New York waterfront prove. Here it takes on the population issue and its chosen medium is as far from a computer model as you could imagine.

The group placed strains of genetically modified E.coli bacteria in an agar medium, and exposed the bacteria to strong UV light. Depending on the DNA put inside the E.coli (taken from anemones and jellyfish), they emitted red, green, yellow, and blue light. The green E.coli was meant to represent the existing population; the red E.Coli the projected.

For simplicity’s sake, they connected the world together into one big land mass, then divided corners of the world into individual Petri dishes. Each has a different scale depending on their current population density. To allow people to view the cell multiplication up close, they inserted a host of USB-microscopes inside each “Petri dish city.”

“The analogue study of bacteria growth potentially yields more exploratory results than a computer model,” Mitch Joachim, Terreform’s co-founder, wrote Co.Exist in an email. “We did not wish to use GIS data to explore population growth, mostly because that is the standard practice. We were searching for possible unforeseen behavior.”

The maps may not be strictly accurate, of course. But then UN’s projections are only guesswork too (albeit based on a host of data). Terreform’s point is more artistic: The “biomaps” show the unpredictable and organic growth of populations, and how humans are more like bacteria than we might like to think.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.