Microbes take center stage in this art contest

Who would have thought microbiologists were such good artists?

Using a petri dishes as their canvas, scientists from around the world have produced tiny masterpieces for the American Society for Microbiology’s annual agar art contest. One entrant used their microbes to produce the classic British police box while another painted a portrait of Louis Pasteur. Still others went for landscapes, comic book superheroes or were inspired to reimagine classic art works like Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night.”

For the van Gogh piece produced by Melanie Sullivan, the different colors represent different bacteria. The brown color, for example, is Proteus mirabilis, a bacterium known for its swarming motility that is a common cause of urinary tract infections. The white color is Acinetobacter baumanii, an opportunistic bacterium that can cause infection in people with weakened immune systems and the blue-green color is Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that colonizes the GI tract and is a common cause of lower urinary tract infections as well as more invasive infections in immunocompromised hosts.

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Mehmet Berkmen and artist Maria Penil won the contest with their painting “Neurons.”  Penil, who is known for paintings of neurons and biological shapes, filled the petri dish with yellow Nesterenkonia, orange Deinococcus and Sphingomonas baceteria that were isolated for their attractive colors as contaminants in the lab.

The winning entry was "Neurons" by Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil.

The winning entry was "Neurons" by Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil. (Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil)

The runner up was "NYC Biome MAP" by Christine Marizzi and Genspace. Produced in brilliant blue, this map uses harmless Escherichia coli K12 bacteria engineered with colorful fluorescent proteins like GFP, RFP or YFP as paint.

To compile this map, more than 50 participants applied bacterial suspension cultures onto square petri plates. The plates were prepared with stencils of NYC’s street grid, allowing participants to paint the bacteria into the patterns. After a short incubation time, the aspiring artists returned to print the grown colonies on paper.

The painting "NYC Biome MAP" by Genspace and Christine Marizzi, took second place in the art contest. The scientists painted a New York city map using harmless bacteria.

The painting "NYC Biome MAP" by Genspace and Christine Marizzi, took second place in the art contest. The scientists painted a New York city map using harmless bacteria. (Genspace and Christine Marizzi)

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Third place went to "Harvest Season" that features a farmhouse surrounded by wheat fields. Composed by Maria Eugenia Inda, a postdoctoral researcher from Argentina working at Cold Spring Harbor Labs, the painting celebrates Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast. It is the active agent responsible for our most basic foods - bread, wine, and beer since ancient civilizations.

The painting "Harvest Season" by Maria Eugenia Inda took third place in the art contest and was inspired by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast.

The painting "Harvest Season" by Maria Eugenia Inda took third place in the art contest and was inspired by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast. (Maria Eugenia Inda)