Microbiologists Turned Artists

Microbes are generally viewed as pests- not an art medium. However, the American Society of Microbiologist (ASM) hosts an annual art contest that challenges microbiologists and artists to create microbial masterpieces. Microbiologists and artist work together to use microbes as the “paint” on the agar canvas. Agar is a gelatin substance that is used for growing and culturing microbes in a laboratory. This contest is a test of plating skills and submissions are judged based on creativity, design, and presentation. Each submission is judged on a written description about the microbe art, scientific accuracy, and appropriateness of the design for a general audience.

For the 2015 ASM Agar Art, out of 85 submissions there were first, second, and third place winners along with a People’s Choice. Despite there only being a few official winners, an album of photos of the submissions can be found on the ASM Facebook page which recognizes all the participants. The designs ranged from classical, like a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, to mainstream, such as the giant microbial map of New York City which took home second place. However the designs were not the only unique part, the microbes used had a special significance to the design.

Harvest Season

Harvest Season

Photo Credit: American Society Microbiology/Maria Eugenia Inda from Argentina

Third place went to this plate which depicts a scene with a humble farm house made using a species of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This yeast is the active agent in many popular foods such as bread, wine, and beer. Saccharomyces cerevisiae is also the model organism for eukaryotes.

The Wild Garden of Gut Bacteria

Gut bacteria garden

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/Nicola Fawcett of England

The inspiration for this design came from the comparison of that the bacterial community in the gut of humans is like a garden. The mixture of bacteria was plated on to chromogenic agar which changes colors based on specific enzymes in the bacteria. The pale lavender color indicates the presence of Escherichia coli, a common gram-negative bacteria. The turquoise indicates the presence of Citrobacter koseri, a normal microbial resident in the gut of humans. The dark blue color indicates the presence of Klebisella pneumoniae, which is a multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

North Carolina

North Carolina

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/North Carolina branch

This design may be simple, but the bacteria used was Chromobacterium violaceum an opportunistic “flesh-eating” pathogen. Most infections from this bacteria arise in immunocompromised individuals along with those who have chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), but to most people the organism is harmless.

Cell to Cell

Cell to Cell

Photo Credit: American Society of Microbiologists/Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil from Massachusetts

This design did not win first, second, or third place but instead won the People’s Choice with over 3,000 likes on Facebook. The red cell represents Serratia, a genus of gram-negative bacteria, extending itself to the yellow cell of the genus Nesterenkonia. The orange tendrils of the cells are made of gram-positive bacteria of the genus Deinococcus and genus Sphingomonas.

These are just a few of the designs created by the talented scientists and artists of the ASM. The competition gave microbiologists the opportunity to show the lesser known artistic side of bacteria.

By Colleen Murphy






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