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Courtesy Microbe World

Scientists paint with bacteria to make art

By Kerry Chan-Laddaran, Special to CNN  |  Posted Oct 23rd, 2015 @ 9:19am


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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — When it comes to art, germs and bacteria are not the first things that come to mind, but scientists are trying to show a more artful side to an otherwise unappealing topic.

To change that view, organizers from the American Society for Microbiology held their first Agar Art Contest. The submissions that came in from around the world looked more like paintings than a collection of bacteria in petri dishes. One even resembles Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" painting.

Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil's "Neurons" was selected by a panel of judges to win first place, and their other submission, "Cell to Cell," got the people's choice award for generating the highest number of likes on Facebook.

Berkmen, a research scientist from New England Biolabs, collaborated with artist Maria Penil to create the winning petri dish. They met a few years ago when Berkmen saw one of her paintings at a restaurant where she was a waitress. He noticed that it had biological undertones, so he approached Penil and offered to teach her how to make petri art.

Using agar, a gelatinous-like substance to fill the petri dish, creates a canvas where the microbes can be collected, spread around like paint and allowed to grow. Berkmen showed Penil how to manipulate the microbes, then use epoxy to seal the bacteria and contents in the dish.

Harvest Season. Photo: Maria Eugenia Inda, CSHL/Courtesy Microbe World

Berkmen said art is very much part of his work as a scientist, but working with Penil to make actual artwork had been a fantasy for a long time.

"All the scientists that I work with, all agree that there is a sense of aesthetics in our work and how we present our work. It is difficult to do and appreciate without art," said Berkmen.

To the public, scientists may be associated with things that are drab and boring, but they see things with enthusiasm and find patterns of creativity in their work, said Emily Dilger, public outreach manager for ASM.

Using visual images and artful photos on social media, Dilger has found an increase of activity and engagement that promotes a conversation about science.

Berkmen agrees and also points out the beauty he finds in microbes.

"You always hear it in the context of sickness or disease, yet there is never any mention of how amazing they are," he said.


You always hear it in the context of sickness or disease, yet there is never any mention of how amazing they (bacteria) are.

–Mehmet Berkmen


Small microbes may not be the largest organisms, but they represent the biggest biomass on this planet, said Berkmen. Dinosaurs and mammals get all the attention when it comes to naturals sciences, so presenting microorganisms in a colorful way is empowering, he said.

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