Science is a beautiful thing. It gives us life, after all. With a little human engineering, life has the potential to imitate art and illuminate the underpinnings of the modern world in the form of biological paintings. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) recently challenged its members to create works of art – using microbes as the paint and agar as the canvas – for its 2015 Agar Art Contest, and participants took their plating skills to the limit with their submissions.

The judges analyzed all 85 submissions for their creativity, design, and presentation, as well as on the written description for scientific accuracy and appropriateness for a general audience. Science!

agar art contest microbe petri dish artMehmet Berkman/Maria Penil of New England Biolabs via American Society for Microbiology

1st Place: Neurons

Neurons and biological shapes come to life in this work submitted by Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs. Artist Maria Penil painted with yellow Nesterenkonia, orange Deinococcus and Sphingomonas isolated for their attractive colors as contaminants in the Berkmen lab. After growing the plates for two days at 30C, Penil usually allows the plate to sit for a few days before permanently sealing the work in epoxy.

agar art contest microbe petri dish artChristine Marizzi of CSHL/DNA Learning Center & Genspace via American Society for Microbiology

2nd Place: NYC Biome MAP

This art piece was created as a collaboration between citizen scientists and artists at Genspace: New York City’s Community Biolab, and was submitted by community lab educator Christine Marizzi, who also works at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory/DNA Learning Center. Though they’re too small to be witnessed with the human eye, microorganisms exist everywhere. This work demonstrates NYC’s melting pot of cultures—both human and microbial—with everyone’s personalized microbiomes contributing to the shape of the city’s collective microbiome.

To help visualize the impact of this collective microbiome, the general public learned about microbes by creating an urban map using harmless Escherichia coli K12 bacteria engineered with colorful fluorescent proteins like GFP, RFP or YFP as paint. The plates were even prepared with stencils of NYC’s street grid, allowing participants to paint the bacteria into the patterns, which were then incubated for a short period of time. The grown colonies were then printed and reassembled into a blended microbial map of NYC.

agar art contest microbe petri dish artMaria Eugenia of CSHL via American Society for Microbiology

3rd Place: Harvest Season

Created by Maria Eugenia Inda, a postdoctoral researcher from Argentina working at Cold Spring Harbor Labs, this painting depicts a farmhouse with wheat production laced in the country yard. An organism metabolically engineered on the b-carotene pathway resulted in a color palette of colonies from yellow to red. The work highlights the plasticity of saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast and active agent responsible for our most basic foods (think bread, wine, and beer).

agar art contest microbe petri dish artMehmet Berkman/Maria Penil of New England Biolabs via American Society for Microbiology

People’s Choice: Cell to Cell

The contest’s first place winners, Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs and artist Maria Penil, painted bacteria on agar and sealed the work in epoxy to create this image, which garnered over 3,800 likes on Facebook.

Check out some of the other submissions from the 2015 Agar Art Contest Facebook album!

Find more Art & Design features here.

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