John Fowles, an acclaimed English novelist, wrote, “All good science is art. And all good art is science,” demonstrating the interdependence of these two disciplines. Microbiologists across the world strive to merge science and art in a novel way—by creatively plating bacteria on agar to produce microbial art. Dr. David Garner, author of the textbook Microbiology Nuts & Bolts, explores this new trend in his blog post “’Tis the season to be… artistic with agar?!” on The Bug Blog (1). In his blog post, Garner considers how one may exploit the distinct characteristics of different bacteria and fungi to design microbial art.
In microbial artwork, bacteria, fungi, and agar type develop the color of the piece. The pigmentation of the bacteria or fungi serve as the basis of the color palette. For example, Garner notes commonly used laboratory bacteria strains such as Staphylococcus aureus and Chromobacter violaceum produce golden and violet hues, respectively (1). For some artists, common laboratory bacteria strains lack the pigmentation necessary for their desired artwork. Therefore, to expand the microbial color collection, microbe artists Jo Wonder and Simon Park collected bacteria from around the world to create a replica of Sir John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia (2). In doing so, they curated a collection of more than 50 species of bacteria and fungi known as C-MOULD (2). This bacteria and fungi compilation now serves as a palette for microbial artists across the world.
While the pigmentation of bacterial strains develops the color in microbial art, agar can also be used to enhance the piece. Garner explains indicator agar, such as blood agar, changes color in the presence of a particular bacteria species (1). As such, the natural color of the indicator agar can serve as background pigmentation. Another method to enhance the color of microbial art is through chromogenic agar. This type of agar contains colorless molecules of chromogen, which produce color when split from an enzyme substrate during normal bacterial growth (3). These enzyme substrates are species specific, so different bacteria can produce different colors on the same agar plate (1).
In addition to color, microbes also possess an array of textures available to manipulate for artistic use. Bacteria, for instance, grow to create various surface textures including smooth (Staphylococcus spp.), crinkled (Actinomyces israelli), glassy (Bacillus spp.), mucoid (Pseudomonas aeruginosa), and slimy (Klebsiella pneumoniae) (1). A microbial artist then selects a bacteria strain that emulates the texture necessary for their art, such as plating bacteria with a glassy texture to mirror ice or snow. Additionally, Garner notes the use of fungi enhances texture due to their growth above the media. In particular, molds such as Aspergillus spp., zygomycetes, and dermatophytes add “fluffiness” to the surface of the art (1). Due to the assortment of colors and textures produced by bacteria and fungi, microbial artists possess a broad palette upon which to create their own biological masterpiece.
Understanding the nuances in the creation of microbial art inspires me to design my own bacterial artwork. For my first piece, I aim to draw a sunflower, using Bacillus atrophaeus for the brown seeds, Micrococcus luteus for the bright yellow petals, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa for the green stem. While artistic skill plays an important role in microbial art, we must remember the true artists of these pieces are the living paints used to create them: bacteria.
- David Garner. ‘Tis the season to be… artistic with agar?!. 19 December 2019, posting date. http://www.microbiologynutsandbolts.co.uk/the-bug-blog/tis-the-season-t…
- Jyoti Madhusoodanan. Petri palettes create microbial masterpieces. PNAS. Oct 2016, 113 (40) 11056-11058.
- CHROMagar. How does Chromogenic Culture Media technology work? 2009. http://www.chromagar.com/p-Chromogenic_agar_Technology.html#.XhYpRBdKiuU