1 Here we are following Ian Hacking’s ‘dynamic nominalism’ where kinds of things come into being at the same time as the kind itself is invented (Hacking 2002).

2 Hannah Landecker’s (2016) work is particularly helpful here, reminding us that biologists may also explore histories of their discipline through attending to model organisms, practices and media.

3 We (unwittingly) echo Andrew Balmer and Susan Molyneux-Hodgson’s study (2013) which set out to compare ‘bacterial ontologies’ emerging from different practices, in the case of their research between wastewater treatment plants and synthetic biology laboratories. They looked at differences between types of ‘engineering’ – but we take another route by centring the bacterium in its encounters with a wider range of actors who share neither discipline nor practices.

4 Our debt to Annemarie Mol is most clear in the notion of practices making multiple versions of something with the same name. The obvious reference is her work on atherosclerosis (1999). However, in her more recent paper on ‘schoon’ (2020) she directs our attention to notions and practices for ensuring ‘cleanliness’, including how we treat wastewater, and gave us the lead to Balmer and Molyneux-Hodgson (2013). See also Erickson (2018) for details on how E. coli is a key indicator of water cleanliness.

5 We are particularly drawing on the New Literary Form movement from the late 1980s (Ashmore 2005; Mulkay 1991; Woolgar and Ashmore 1991) and later work that voices actants as well as humans, such as Latour (1996). We use italics to signal the imagined voice of the microbe against ordinary text for other actants.

6 With Bruno Latour (2005) we reassemble the assemblages that we have encountered in our various researches – using different fonts for Chorus and ‘stage directions’.

7 We invoke the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry, Thalia. Translations of this name include ‘blooming’ (Hesiod, trans. by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield: 77). Liddell and Scott’s translation (1889) of θαλεια is ‘blooming, luxuriant, goodly, bounteous’, and Θαλεια, η, one of the Muses, ‘the blooming one’ (Hesiod, trans. by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield). Thalia as ‘blooming’ has good microbial connotations – bacterial blooms have been described in the literature (e.g. Fuentes et al. 2016).

8 The ‘wild man’, companion to Gilgamesh in that eponymous epic poem composed sometime in the second millennium BCE.

9 Theocritus, Idyll XXII: The Dioscuri (from lines 27–52)

10 Escherich (1885).

11 Méric et al. (2016); Dunne et al. (2017).

12 Chick (1908).

13 See MacConkey’s obituary in Nature 127, 980–9811931, which also mentions his love of roses. MacConkey gave his name to a selective medium widely used to encourage the growth of E. coli in laboratories across the twentieth century.

14 Buchanan (1916).

15 MacConkey was drawing on older ideas about differential media but exploring the best way to tailor the medium to B. coli from 1897, publishing a summary in MacConkey (1908).

16 This urge to count was not new: see a fuller account of the nineteenth-century history of water analysis in Britain in Hamlin (1990).

17 MacConkey (1909).

18 Eckburg et al. (2005).

19 Tchobanoglous et al. (2014), p. 160 – the current version of ‘Metcalf and Eddy’ – first published in 1914–15 as American Sewerage Practice.

20 Wall (2013).

21 Voswinckel (1994) – with thanks to Eleanor Kashouris.

22 Dudgeon (1908).

23 Kass (1956).

24 In part because of interest in diabetes as a treatable condition, see Oudshoorn (1994).

25 In 1957, Ames launched Albustix, similarly using colour to give a semi-quantitative estimate of protein concentration.

26 The brand name for Beecham’s new antibiotic, ampicillin, on the market since 1961.

27 Maskell et al. (1983); Stamm (1983).

28 Hilt et al. (2014).

29 See Blount (2014).

30 Price et al. (2016).

31 Target alteration, reduced drug concentration, inactivation of the drug.

32 Adapted E. coli 131 (ST131) improved fitness and growth rate and spread worldwide as an extraintestinal pathogenic organism.

33 Nomamiukor et al. (2015).

34 See and explanations there of new definitions of susceptibility and resistance published in January 2019 after review by EUCAST [accessed 9 December 2019].

35 Nomamiukor et al. (2015) op cit.

36 Pouwels et al. (2019).

37 Costelloe et al. (2010).

38 Knight et al. (2018).

39 Fleck (1979).

40 Browning et al. (2013a),

41 Dunne et al. (2017); Browning et al. (2013a).

42 Browning et al. (2013a) Table S1 shows the relevant genotype of this bacterial strain.

43 We are improving readability by using this nomenclature, rather than extended strain names: our definitions are as follows: ‘wild type’ refers to an organism that has been unmodified, but may be a laboratory strain such as K-12; ‘true wild type’ refers to an organism that has not been modified and exists in the environment beyond the laboratory; ‘strain’ refers to an organism that exists in the laboratory but has been deliberately modified to take on certain phenotypical characteristics.

44 Browning et al. (2013b).

45 Ibid.

46 Another model organism, a worm, microscopic, that eats bacteria; if the worm dies, it shows pathogenicity of the microbe. See

47 Under this name the strain is stored in extra cold freezers in the lab, lying dormant until it’s needed again. But it has also travelled the world, as the microbiologists send out samples in response to requests from Argentina, Canada, and Singapore, just as Escherich shared his original E. coli with colleagues in Cambridge.

48 Browning (2013b).

49 Rabbia et al. (2016).

50 Sozzi et al. (2015).

51 Gołofit-Szymczak et al. (2019).

52 ‘The anthropocentric view of bacteriology has largely driven the study of pathogenic E. coli at the expense of understanding commensalism’, Dunne et al. (2017).


Professor James Ebdon, Dr Doug Browning, Eric Will MD, participants in the Kilpisjärvi ‘With Microbes’ workshop and 2020 EASST/4S conference. Catherine Will would like to acknowledge the support of the Wellcome Trust (grant no 214954/Z/18/Z).


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