Every year, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) invites people to submit “agar art” – an image created by growing differently colored microorganisms on a plate of agar. This year, they also invited other art forms in the competition as long as they all fit the same theme and showcased the artists’ favorite microbiologists.
In the professional category, for people who have access to a microbiology lab stocked with all the essentials needed to make agar art, the regional winner of the Americas was a team from the University of Chile (Joaquín Acosta, André Barbet, Camilo Berríos-Pastén and Andrés E. Marcoleta) who created a portrait of 19th century scientist Fanny Angelina Hesse.
Fanny Hesse worked as a laboratory technician with her husband Walter Hesse and she introduced the use of agar as a growth medium for bacteria. This is a very fitting choice of a portrait for this competition, because the artwork itself was also created using agar, a jelly made from algae. (If it sounds familiar, agar is also used in cooking, often as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin, which is made from animal products).
Agar is still a standard way of growing microbes in a lab. One way to transfer bacteria to an agar plate is with a stick that leaves a pattern of microbes behind, as if they were drawn. That same technique is how four different strains of bacteria were transferred to the agar plates to create the Warhol-inspired artwork of Fanny Hesse, with different bacteria creating different colors.
Another category of the awards was open to schools and community groups, who had access to some of the basic tools to make agar art but perhaps not as many different microbes (colors). In this category, the winners were Fiza Sikandar, Linta Khalid and Kosar Bano of the University of the Punjab. They agar art portraits of their favorite microbiologists Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and Rita Cowell whose work all created contributed to better understanding infectious diseases.
Even artists that are used to more traditional media than bacteria on an agar plate could submit their favorite microbiologists. In the open category, Xiang En Lim won with this portrait of Esther Lederberg, whose research on lambda phage viruses has helped to advance the field of genetics.
Finally, there was a category for young artists under the age of 12, where Casey Harelik and Xinyu Lin both took home first place. Casey Harelik used agar art to create a portrait of Ruth E. Moore, the first African-American woman to earn a natural sciences PhD, while Xinyu Lin drew a felt-tip marker portrait of their own mother.
The annual ASM agar art competition is one of several annual awards where scientists and artists compete to create science-based artworks. Others are usually photography themed (like the British Ecological Society photography competition) or microscopy-based (such as the Nikon Small World competition or the Olympus Image of the Year award). But making art by skillfully growing microbes in a pattern is in a category of its own and a very creative way to turn science into art.