The Many Dimensions of Agar Art
By Katherine S. Lontok, Ph.D. (Public Outreach Manager, American Society for Microbiology), Christine Marrizzi, Ph.D. (DNA Learning Center West Manager, DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), & Tasha Sturm (Science Laboratory Technician, Cabrillo College), guest contributors
Microbes and Art
Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered the world of microbes, living creatures (plus viruses) too small to see with the naked eye, in the 17th century. Hooke published the first image of a microbe, an illustration of fungal fruiting bodies, in his 1664 book Micrographia. Although his drawing is beautiful, he intended to document what he had seen under his microscope, not to create art. As we have learned more about the microbial world, and fungi, bacteria, and viruses have entered society’s larger consciousness, they have become both the subject of art and a medium for artistic creation. In turn, the use of microbes in art showcases the underappreciated beauty and diversity of this unseen world and draws new audiences to microbiology.
The Natural World of Microbial Growth
Microbes have their own naturally occurring colors and patterns of growth. When they are allowed to grow on agar (a transparent, gelatinous layer of artificial growth media) without interference, the results can be startling. Photographing these intricate designs is akin to photographing wildlife - it not only has value in identifying what is there, but also reveals a world of natural beauty that most people have never experienced.
Capturing natural microbial growth that resembles items already familiar to non-scientists broadens the appeal of these images. What looks like a mucoid, rhizoid irregular colony to a microbiologist might look like a Halloween-style brain to a non-scientist. Other microbes grow to resemble flowers, atmospheric storms, Pac-Man and even Vincent Van Gogh's “Starry Night.” Highlighting naturally occurring microbial growth through photography is a creative way to share the microbial world with the wider public.
Agar Art: Painting with Microbes
In contrast to natural growth photography, agar art uses living microbes as the medium through which a piece is realized and rarely features microbes themselves as its subject. In its most basic form, petri dishes filled with agar act as a ‘canvas.’ The artist ‘paints’ microscopic creatures onto the surface of the agar like invisible ink and allows them to grow until they become visible. The concept dates back to Alexander Fleming in the 1930s at least and some have proposed that Fleming is actually the father of bio art.
Both color and texture are essential elements in the visual arts. In agar art, microbes generate color by synthesizing pigments, expressing proteins, or interacting with additives in the agar. “The Points of a Petal,” by Rebecca Buxton and Anny Pham uses naturally pigmented bacterial species, including deep purple Chromobacterium violaceum and bright yellow Micrococcus luteus, to create an image in the pointillist style. Microbes that are normally white or cream-colored can be made colorful by introducing genes for fluorescent or chromogenic proteins into them. Jasmine Temple and her colleagues used genetic modification to produce eight different colors of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker’s yeast, for “Sunset at the End.” Genetic modification has been used in other forms of bio art to comment on the ethical and societal implications of biotechnology.