Microbes and agar are no longer just scientific tools—they’re key ingredients to making beautiful works of art.
The American Society for Microbiology challenged its members to create art using microbes as paint and agar as the canvas, and the results are brilliant. There were 85 submissions in the end, but one petri dish submitted by Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs and artist Maria Penil blew judges away. The artwork, named “Neuron,” grabbed first place.
“If you go to any natural history museum around the world, you’ll see dinosaurs, whales, lions, and plants, but there are no representation of microbes,” Berkmen tells Quartz. “They are the most diverse organisms in the world, with the largest biomass, yet the only thing you hear in the media is bacteria do bad things and we want to change that.”
Penil trained with Berkmen to learn how to use different microbes to create what’s known as “bio-art.” For the winning piece, she used yellow Nesterenkonia, orange Deinococcus, and Sphingomonas.
Second place went to NYC Biome MAP. This artwork was a collaboration between citizen scientists and artists at Genspace: New York City’s Community Biolab.
“Harvest Season” by Maria Eugenia won third place. The artwork used Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, a species of yeast that is responsible for making most of our basic food. It depicts a farm house, with wheat production in the courtyard.
The People’s Choice award went to “Cell to Cell,” which had almost 3,500 likes on Facebook. This was another piece of work by Penil.