Art with microbes (and enzymes)

Reader Su called my attention to this really clever contest that garnered some amazing entries. I love it because it represents the fusion of art and science. What you’ll see below are the winners (and some other entries) in the American Society for Microbiology’s “Agar Art” contest, as shown by Stumbleupon (see also here).

If you look at the entries, the rules were clear: create a piece of art using only a Petri dish, nutrient agar, and various species of microbes. Those microbes differ in texture and color, and so, depending on how you inoculate the culture, you can get some nice designs. First the winners:


FIRST PLACE: NEURONS Submitted by Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs, with artist Maria Penil


Second place: NYC Biome MAP, submitted by Christine Marizzi, an educator at a community lab. This art piece was created as a collaboration between citizen scientists and artists at Genspace: New York City’s Community Biolab.


THIRD PLACE: HARVEST SEASON Created by Maria Eugenia Inda, a postdoctoral researcher from Argentina working at Cold Spring Harbor Labs


PEOPLE’S CHOICE: CELL TO CELL With almost 3,500 likes on Facebook. This image was created by the group who won first place, Mehmet Berkmen with artist Maria Penil

The titles and artist/scientist creators of the next plates weren’t given, but they’re really nice plates:


A special Halloween entry:


And this surely must be a tribute to the Original Microbiologist: Louis Pasteur:

I’ll add here my own attempt at this kind of stuff. My Ph.D. work involved revealing how much genetic variation there was at some enzyme loci by performing “gel electrophoresis”: separating variant enzymes by putting them on a gel subjected to an electric field, letting the variants of different size and charge separate over several hours, and then using specific stains to visualize the enzymes. This isn’t done much any more (DNA sequencing is easier), but in in the old days you’d get gels like this (not my gel):


You can see several variants here, as well as heterozygotes, which have two forms of an enzyme and thus produce two bands.

After diligently doing this with a highly variable gene (esterase-5), I decided to produce a gel with legible words on it for my job talks. After some careful experimentation and calculation, and injecting gel lanes with several variants mixed together, I was able to spell “THE END” on a gel, and it was very clear. I used that as the last slide of my electrophoresis talks, and I still think it’s the only time that anybody’s used gel electrophoresis of any sort to spell out a phrase. (I’m sure a reader will correct me here!).

I have it only on a 35 mm Kodachrome slide, which is how we gave talks back in the Eocene, and I wasn’t going to show it, but I just went ahead and used my iPhone to take a photo of the gel slide held up against the sky. Nice, eh?:



  1. Lauri Törmä
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    There is a guy who proposed with a gel:

  2. Jim Knight
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, did you take many classes from Gould while you were at Harvard? He seemed to have that same kind of creativity… GREAT slide!

  3. Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Back when I was a post-doc in the old Genetics Department at Berkeley, I used some colored fungi (Neurospora crassa, a black yeast, a white Neurospora mutant and green Aspergillus to grow some snowmen and Christmas tree scenes on petri plates for the department’s holiday party. I may still have pictures of them, but as I recall, they were taken a couple of days later and were somewhat overgrown. Somewhere I’ve heard that an English microbiologist grew a Union Jack on agar when Queen Victoria visited his laboratory. As I recall the story, the Queen WAS NOT AMUSED, though that might be apocryphal (like the rest?).

  4. Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I love it!


  5. Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink


    • rickflick
      Posted October 25, 2015 at 4:27 pm | Permalink


  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Very cool. I can see how someone one day will do Starry Night with microbes.

  8. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    That is a cool slide, PCCE. If there is anyone writing a review or (historical) book on gel electrophoresis, that would be an interesting illustration.
    That and the proposal noted up-thread.

  9. Posted October 25, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink


  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Scientism! 😀

    I read there was a Starry Night entry.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone read the writing around the bottom edge of Pasteur’s dish? Seems to be a quote.

    • Posted October 26, 2015 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      No – but he was a believer in some sort of theistic god so I would not worry too much!

    • noncarborundum
      Posted October 26, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      “The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great.”

      • Anonymous
        Posted October 26, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. And as I suspected, a quote from Pasteur. Were you actually able to read the writing or did you just match it to known Pasteur quotes?

        • noncarborundum
          Posted October 27, 2015 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          A little of both. I made out “of the” right away and “infinitely” after some head-scratching, and from there it was an easy Google search.

  12. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    These are gorgeous! And I love the “The End” too! 🙂

  13. John Harshman
    Posted October 25, 2015 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey, talk about your two cultures.

  14. Posted October 26, 2015 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Lovely slide Jerry – I don’t recall seeing any of your esterase talks, so missed this gem. I currently finish my talks on the history of the genetic code with a huge UAG. – Matthew Cobb

  15. Posted October 26, 2015 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Very nice! Easy to scan the slide – if you cannot, SOMEONE in your department will be able to!

  16. Mike
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Amazing images, especially that one at The End , bit of ass kissing never goes amiss.

  17. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Microbial Art

  18. HBB
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    These are all very cool – I wish I were that creative. My best effort was back in Ph.D. school when I slipped a tabloid picture of Elvis under a slice of agarose gel and ran around the Department declaring that a miracle had occurred. We recorded our gels with Polaroid photos and I have since lost the Elvis one. I first considered using a picture of Jebus or Mary, but decided I needed to graduate at some point. That kind of magisterial mixing could have career implications, after all.

  19. Kevin
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “THE END”. Very nice.

  20. noncarborundum
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    And this surely must be a tribute to the Original Microbiologist: Louis Pasteur:

    I’m glad you clarified that. My first thought was that it was a portrait of President Grant, and I was wondering why anyone would do that in a microbial medium.

  21. drew
    Posted October 26, 2015 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    There was also the starry night one

    Link is here

%d bloggers like this: