Microbial Art Brings Microscopic Life into View

Earlier this year, the American Society for Microbiology hosted its second annual Agar Art competition [1]. In this competition, individuals created art using Petri dishes filled with bacterial growth agar, a gelatinous substance containing nutrients needed for bacterial growth. Microbes are etched onto the agar surface, invisible at first, but then after a period of growth, the microbes reveal themselves creating designs on the agar plates [2]. Each piece is accompanied by a caption describing the imagery and the science used in the making of the agar art. After the submission process, the public votes for their favorite piece(s) on social media.

Competitions such as these use creativity and artistry to make science fun and involve the public. One of the winners of the 2016 Agar Art Competition was "The First Race" by Md Zohorul Islam of the University of Copenhagen and Statens Serum Institut. The agar art illustrates the process of fertilization where millions of spermatozoa compete to reach the egg first. "I love to work with these tiny creatures!" Dr. Islam states. "Human beings, animals and plants maintain a very sophisticated relationship with millions of microbes. I wanted to show how diverse [microbes are]!" In "The First Race" Dr. Islam paints a colorful and vivid image using different microbes that produce distinct colors due to reactions between chemical substances produced by the bacteria with substrates from the agar media.

The First Race. Photo credit: Md Zohorul Islam and American Society for Microbiology.

While agar art has become particularly trendy in the past few years, art has been used for a long time to depict microbiological concepts. Individual artists have long noticed the fascinating world of invisible life all around them. Many artist-scientist collaborations use science-art (sciart) to offer new views on a subject or to correct any misconceptions about the subject matter. In the case of microbiology, microbes have been traditionally associated with infections but this is not the complete truth about microbes. In fact, most microbes are completely harmless or even beneficial.

In attempts to demonstrate the diverse characters of microbes living amongst us, the paper artist Rogan Brown [3] creates elaborate paper sculptures inspired by the natural state of microbes on our planet. His Magic Circle Variation series is a collection of complex sculptures that depict microbial communities in a fascinating, intricate way. Brown says that his work is "inspired by the human microbiome [and] an attempt to visualize in an imaginative, playful way the vast and diverse [microorganisms] that inhabit our body and help it function. By creating what I hope is a visually rich, intricate, stylized representation of this hidden world I hope to alter people's perception of it, to see it as something benign, fascinating and beautiful." The Magic Circle Variation series does indeed depict the human microbiome as an imaginative, winter wonderland of microbes.

Magic Circle Variation 5. Photo credit: Rogan Brown.

Like Rogan Brown, Luke Jerram is another artist that challenges the standard depiction of microbes. Viruses are typically depicted in vivid and contrasting colors in textbooks and news media. Jerram wondered, “If some images are coloured for scientific purposes, and others altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly coloured?” In collaboration with glass blowers and virologists, Jerram challenged this depiction by featuring translucent sculptures of viruses in his Glass Microbiology exhibit [4]. Since viruses (20 nm to 300 nm) are smaller than a wavelength of visible light (380 nm to 750 nm), they have no color despite how they are often depicted by illustrators.

T4 Bacteriophage. Photo credit: Luke Jerram.

Microbial art and other forms of sciart not only portray creative imagery, they act as avenues for scientific inspiration and make science more accessible to the public. According to Rogan Brown, "the non-scientist, can sometimes feel lost and overwhelmed when confronted with [science]. The artist, by creating a highly individual, imaginative response to science can perhaps offer a more personalized vision of it, making it more accessible and enjoyable to engage with." Indeed, microbial art has become nearly as ubiquitous as the microbes themselves.

Jennifer Tsang, Ph.D. (@jw_tsang)
Blogger at http://microbialmenagerie.com
Postdoctoral Researcher, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School

[1] Fusing Design and Science, ASM’s Agar Art Contest is Back for Round Two, https://www.asm.org/index.php/asm-newsroom2/press-releases/94270-fusing-design-and-science-asm-s-agar-art-contest-is-back-for-round-two, 2016.
[2] 2015 BioArt Competition Winners: Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2pjbwM3KjI&feature=youtu.be, 2015.
[3] Rogan Brown – Paper Sculptures, http://roganbrown.com/home.html.
[4] Glass Microbiology, http://www.lukejerram.com/glass/about.