Top 5 Agar Art Tips

Sept. 10, 2019

ASM’s 2019 Agar Art Contest opens today! Submit your microbial masterpiece for the chance to win more than $400-worth of prizes.

Learn More About ASM's Agar Art Contest

For those of you who haven’t spent all summer dreaming up concepts and tinkering with designs, we’re counting down our top tips for creating a winning piece of agar art. Be sure to get your piece in before the Oct. 22, 2019 deadline! 

5. Get creative with your materials.

Serratia marcescens, Micrococcus luteus, transgenic Escherichia coli are all staples of the agar art palette. What can you do that goes beyond the staples? Can you showcase a biological or metabolic process that hasn’t been explored before? Below is a piece from the contest that shows incredible creativity, not necessarily because of what it portrays, but because of how it was created. Paul Rowley’s piece is still the only piece we’ve ever received that uses a virus.  
''Yeast go viral,''  Paul Rowley. 2015.
''Yeast go viral,'' Paul Rowley. 2015.
"Unlike human viruses that cause disease, yeast viruses do not cause any obvious illness in yeast. On the contrary, some viruses of yeast are beneficial and produce toxins that kill off competing yeast, allowing their host to thrive. We often think of viruses as agents of death and disease, but in truth, some viruses are actually quite helpful to the host that they infect.

In this art piece a strain of S. cerevisiae, infected with a virus called L-A, has been painted onto the agar to represent virus particles. The remaining agar was seeded with a competing strain of S. cerevisiae. The virus-infected strain produces a potent viral toxin that prevents the growth of the competing strain, leaving areas free of growth upon the agar. Dark blue areas are dead yeast cells that got too close to the toxin-producing yeast!"

4. Look at what others have submitted to the contest.

Past submissions can be a great source of inspiration. They also let you know the level of artistry you’ll be up against - our previous submissions are intricate and wildly creative, so think beyond a Serratia smiley face.

Beware, though, of creating pieces similar to what’s been done before. Every year, we get many pieces with similar themes: mandalas, recreations of famous paintings, global maps, institutional logos, birds and fish. Though beautiful, these pieces don’t stand out from the crowd. 

The artistry, creativity and originality of your piece all come into play during judging.

3. Leave time for the unexpected.

The contest closes on Oct. 22, 2019, so you should start working on your creation now! Test your design and the materials you want to use in case your piece doesn’t grow as you intended. After all, your ‘paints’ aren’t static; they’re living creatures. Painting 2 species in close proximity may not turn out how you imagine (this concept is the basis of Sarah Adkins and Jeff Morris’ undergraduate course at the University of Alabama Birmingham). Or, your transgenic strain might unexpectedly stop producing gobs of fluorescent protein. There’s also the specter of contamination. Just as experiments can go belly-up when something unexpected takes over the plate, so can agar art.

2. Pay attention to lighting when you photograph your piece.

There is nothing more heart-wrenching than looking at a poorly shot photo of a cool piece of agar art. These days, most phone cameras take decent photos, so you don’t need professional equipment to get a good shot. But, you DO need to set up your shot carefully. Her'es what we recommend:
  • Lay your piece flat on a neutral background and take the photo from directly overhead, preferably using a gooseneck clamp that will hold the phone or camera steady.
  • Turn off overhead lights and use ambient light from a window instead. This will prevent the phone or camera from creating shadows and will minimize glare from the petri dish(es).
  • If it’s safe (i.e., everything on the plate is BSL-1), remove the top of your plate before photographing to eliminate glare completely. 

​1. Craft a meaningful description for your piece.

This often overlooked component is the focus of 2 of the 5 items on the judging rubric, so it's crucial to determining contest winners:
  • Scientific Accuracy of the Description (1-5): How accurate is the description that accompanies the work?
  • Accessibility of the Description (1-5): Is the description informative and engaging? Is it written so it can be understood by someone with little or no background in microbiology?
Some amazing, artistically-detailed pieces have lost out in years past because their descriptions were spartan. Write your description in narrative style using complete sentences. Tell the story of your piece. Describe not only the organism(s) and agar(s) you chose to use, but why, and how your materials or techniques tie in to the subject of your piece. And finally, avoid using scientific abbreviations.  

Although this piece from ASM’s 2017 contest did not win, it’s description is outstanding:
“negative space art with gram positive thermoactinomyces,'' Grigor Shahinyan, Armine Margaryan. 2017.
“negative space art with gram positive thermoactinomyces,'' Grigor Shahinyan, Armine Margaryan. 2017.
"This negative space art was made by using a Thermoactinomyces sp. strain isolated from geothermal spring located near Akhurian River (Armenia). The strain used is an extremophile and grows optimally in environments with high temperatures (>55°C) and forms white colored aerial mycelium.

The rare allele of the White Siberian Tigers (1/10000) causes a lack of pheomelanin (a pigment) in the skin and the fur of the animals which makes them snow white. There are only about 200 individuals left in the world. They are mainly held in captivity since there may be no wild white tigers left in the wild. 

The "negative space" art style is chosen for making this agar art, since in case of incorrect preservation and insufficient care of these magnificent beasts we might be left with a big negative space in our hearts."
Good luck to all our agar artists out there, we’re excited to see what you come up with this year! 

Share your tips for creating agar art in the comments below - we'll Tweet out the best ones.

And finally, be sure to get your microbial masterpiece in before the Oct. 22, 2019 deadline. 

Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok is the Director of Science and Policy Communications with the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the former Scientific and Digital Editor for ASM.