This print sure looks like petals (it's even called Flowers). But nope: the pattern is liver cells that have been treated with the smallpox vaccine.

Artist Vik Muniz created the work with bioengineer Tal Danino and MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia as part of The Art of Saving a Life, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation foundation that tapped artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other creative types to tell "a collection of stories about how vaccines continue to change the course of history."

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About his piece, Muniz writes: "The artwork is a microscopic pattern of liver cells infected with a smallpox vaccine virus. After infection, the virus turns the cells a reddish color which allows scientists to visualise infection."

According to Wired, the piece was designed by the trio in collaboration.

They turned the pattern into a rubber stamp that could deposit a thin layer of collagen onto a petri dish. Cells, usually from the liver, are added; they thrive on the collagen, then perish on plastic and are photographed. "People are quite surprised to realize that the images are made up of real cancer/liver cells and real viruses," says Danino, "They are not photoshopped. They are equally struck by the fact that beyond the photograph, the cells are alive, move around, and fluoresce."

Creating images with unconventional materials is nothing new for Muniz, who has fashioned portraits of Civil War veterans using plastic toy soldiers and homages to the Mona Lisa from peanut butter and jelly. He's worked with MIT scientists in the past to turn bacteria, viruses, and mold into works of art.

"I always work with scientists because I think we're trying to do the same thing," Muniz says in a video accompanying the project. "It's a beautiful thing that a vaccine is actually made out of poison. I find this fascinating, it's poetic."

In addition, Danino hopes the technique used to create the artwork will have practical scientific uses in the future. "We hope to publish this technique and use it in subsequent studies where we want control over specific forms of cells and bacteria to study their spatial and temporal behaviors."

Photo by Vik Muniz via Wired.