This year's Agar Art contest, like everything else in 2020, was a bit different. But in our case, change was a good thing! We opened up the contest to allow submissions using any type of art form, with the only requirement being that the submission had to adhere to theme "Microbes Are Beautiful." Of course, we also allowed traditional agar art works.

Overall, we got 189 submissions from 203 different submitters, representing 29 countries around the globe. Each of the pieces of art was incredible on its own, which made picking winners difficult. After a rigorous, 2-round judging process, we chose the top 3 in each category, along with People's Choice awards determined by voting on our Facebook page. 

Traditional Category

Our classic category — microorganisms growing on agar.

1st Place

“The Gardener” by Joanne Dungo from Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Northridge, Calif.
“The Gardener” by Joanne Dungo from Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Northridge, Calif.

A colleague of mine once said that a microbiologist is like a gardener. Just like a gardener uses seeds, soil, and water to grow flowers and plants, a microbiologist uses microorganisms, like bacteria and yeast, to grow them in nutrient-filled agar petri dishes. And just like a garden showcases a variety of flowers, a chromogenic agar medium displays a colorful variety of Candida species. A CHROM Candida is an agar medium containing chromogenic substrates that selects for Candida species and differentiates them based on the differences in colony morphology and color. Yeasts have specific enzymes that degrades the substrates which releases different colored compounds into the agar.  The leaves and the grape vines are colonies of Candida albicans and Candida dubliniensis that appear green and metallic green on chromagar. Candida tropicalis colonies appear blue as seen on the gardener's hat and watering pot. The pink apron and pink flowers are from Candida krusei. The grapes are the lavender and mauve colonies of Candida glabrata. While the gardener's white dress is Candida parapsilosis. Chromagar is a useful tool in the identification of Candida species.  Plus, its vibrant colors brightens one's day, just like a garden!

3rd Place

“Micro-Nature in a spotted eagle ray” by Isabel Araque and Jenny Oñate from Quito, Ecuador
“Micro-Nature in a spotted eagle ray” by Isabel Araque and Jenny Oñate from Quito, Ecuador

At Galapagos Islands near a little country named Ecuador, a blue and green pastel color like Candida Chromogenic sea, hides a spotted eagle ray. This gorgeous creature swims in total freedom and softly glides across the water.  Its body is painted in blue C. tropicalis and green C. albicans which make a splashed pattern of colorfully bright green spots.  This spotted ray pectoral fins´ look like an eagle wings moving graciously in the water.  Unfortunately, as beautiful as this ray is, it is considered near threatened on the IUCN red list.  Sometimes when it migrates in search of food out of Galapagos Islands, the eagle ray also can be seen swimming near different types of algae, which are represented in this Micro-Nature. The first one at the right side is Gelidium Corneum alga, painted with C. krusei. The alga is used to make agar-agar, one important component of culture media. In addition, it is also employed in both pharmaceutical and food industry. The other alga Asparagopsis Armata is commonly known as Harpoon Weed red alga, painted with a mixture of C. glabrata and C. parapsilosis. This Harpoon Weed alga is also used to make agar for human consume, cosmetical products and others. The sea floor is softly painted with C. albicans. On the whole, this living microorganism’s art, shows the strong connection between the living Candida and the culture media, as well as, in the marine life different organisms interact with each other!



2nd Place

“Microbial Peacock” by Balaram Khamari from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Puttaparthi, India
“Microbial Peacock” by Balaram Khamari from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Puttaparthi, India

Peacock is the national bird of India. It represents regality, beauty, prosperity, harmony, and optimism. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and exotic creations of nature. Various traditional art forms in India are inspired by the magnificent symmetric arrangement of the peacock's plumage and its flexible neck.  An integration of these traditional art forms with agar art is being presented through this "Microbial peacock." Here, the body of the peacock is made of Escherichia coli; and the individual tail feathers are an alternate arrangement between Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the two most commonly encountered human pathogens. The small colonies around the head of the peacock and the eyeball are made of Enterococcus faecalis, a  gut bacterium that produces tiny and distinct colonies.

People's Choice

Voted on by our Facebook followers.

“LOBO” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore
“LOBO” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore

This piece is a memorable to me because the wolf represents my girlfriend. Her last name is “lubo” which sounds like “lobo”, meaning "wolf" in the Filipino language. I made this because each time I see a wolf I remember every moment we spent together. The full moon represents the distance and nights we have wait before we can see each other again. Reason being, we are in a long distance relationship. I chose the moon because I only get to see her one month in a year during the school vacation.  The agar I used was Baird Parker agar (BPA). BPA was poured in an A4 container so that I have a bigger freedom to draw. I used this agar because The yellow BPA gives a perfect contrast against the black wolf drawn using Staphylococcus aureus. The shine effect was caused by a yellow light and taken in a dark room environment, giving BPA a natural glow. Lithium chloride and potassium tellurite act as selective agents in BPA. Egg yolk is the substrate to detect lecithinase production and lipase activity. S. aureus develops dark grey to black colonies due to tellurite reduction. S. aureus also produces lecithinase which break down the egg yolk, forming clear zones around the colonies. An opaque zone of precipitation may also grow due to lipase activity.

Traditional Category, Kids (12 and Under)

1st Place

“I love my microbiome” by Ariana Gestal-Gurr from Shreveport, Louisiana
“I love my microbiome” by Ariana Gestal-Gurr from Shreveport, Louisiana

The goal of this work was to demonstrate kids what they have in their nose. How many times have we seen a kid putting the finger on their nose and then touching their food, or carry on playing like if nothing happened? Ariana Gestal Gurr wanted to know what is in her nose and for that she put the finger in her nose and drew a heart because "she loves the good microbes". The day after I showed her what she had in her nose and she said "Oh, mommy that's nasty". We talked about the good guys, the microbiota that helps you to prevent disease, that helps you to be strong, and powerful like a superhero. Then we talked about bad guys and how they can take over and kick the good guys so that they can make you sick. She has stopped putting fingers in her nose and now she is constantly washing her hands.


2nd Place

“Dinosaur at Sunset” by Aziliz C Pernet from Los Angeles, California
“Dinosaur at Sunset” by Aziliz C Pernet from Los Angeles, California

Aziliz is 5 years old. She is intrigued by microbes and dinosaurs. This is her very first streak plate. She combined her two passions and used microbes (the tiniest living things on earth) to create a dinosaur (the most gigantic creature that has ever lived). In her work, a red dinosaur (made with Serratia marcescens) is staring at the orange sky at sunset (created with a blend of Serratia marcescens and Micrococcus luteus).

Open Category

Any form of media allowed to portray why "Microbes are Beautiful."

1st Place

“Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler from Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.
“Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler from Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

“Strands of Antisense” is an abstracted artwork of the skin microbiome. A microbiome is defined as the collective genetic material of all the microbes that live inside and on the human body. The piece itself was partially created using natural stains from various fruits and vegetables which all have their own individual microbiomes. In a lab environment, scientists use agar plates to isolate and identify specific cultures of bacteria. That said, a square centimeter of skin alone houses over one billion microorganisms including a wide variety of fungus, viruses and bacteria. Despite all of the hand washing, sanitizing and bathing humans do, we still have 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells throughout our body at any given moment. The world of microbes is ruled by form and function. Complex interactions that may seem insignificant at first, but are integral to the human body. I believe there is beauty to be found in the unseen.

3rd Place

“12 Days of Agar Art” by Michael E. Taveirne, Regino M. Fernandes II, Nathaniel James Browning and Ty Grewell from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

The "12 Days of Agar Art" is a fun spin on the traditional Christmas carol "The 12 Days of Christmas." In this cumulative music video, we introduce a new concept in microbiology for each new day. All the images were created with Agar Art using the bioluminescent (glowing) bacterium Photobacterium leiognathi, which is presented on Day 1. This bacterium produces a blue hue bioluminescence, some of the agar art images were false-colored for festive fun. This fun music video helps to show the diversity and beautiful side of microbes.
 

People's Choice (video)

Voted on by our Facebook followers.

“Hand Embroidered Pandemic Shirt” by Katherine Carpenter and Chris Carpenter from Shoreline, Wash.

Just before quarantine, I started my biggest hand embroidery project to date the pandemic shirt. I painstakingly embroidered depictions of 41 bacteria, viruses, prions, and other disease-causing microbes. I chose each microbe based on its shape (for visual appeal) and pathogenicity (for cool factor). The complete list of microbes presented on the shirt is in the YouTube description box, but a few examples include the following. Ebola, a flavivirus that has a 98-99% death rate in infected humans and also has a really interesting shape. Vibrio cholera, Camplobacter jejuni, and Clostridioides difficile which I embroidered on the bottom of the back half of the shirt because they cause gastrointestinal stress. The general diseases syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea which were placed on the bottom front or back of the shirt. I also included COVID-19 on the arm of the shirt along with Polio and Dengue virus. I thought they kind of looked like Army badges. On the other arm of the shirt I embroidered the words "WASH YOUR HANDS" as a friendly reminder for all of us during this time. For most of the embroideries I used a satin stitch (a filler stitch, similar to coloring) to fill in the shape, but in the case of Strep throat I used hundreds of French knots to give the piece a 3D effect and some texture. I also carefully chose colors for each embroidery so the shirt would feel colorful and bright, but also if I thought a particular color would be funny or interesting. Black Plague for example was stitched entirely in black thread while Yellow Fever has a prodomint yellow palette. I also used split stitches and whipped back stitches to create flowy flagella for pieces such as Helicobacter pylori or Proteus mirabellus. I have wanted to make a piece like this for years, but it wasn't until quarantine (when I had lots of extra time on my hands) that I actually got to do it. I have been fascinated by germs and microbes ever since I was a child. It's one of the biggest reasons I got in to science in the first place. This shirt is my way to show the world how fascinating and beautiful microbes are. They are each unique and fascinating, even if they aren't always pleasant when we get them. I hope that by wearing this shirt I will get the opportunity to talk with new people about the beauty of the microbes in the world.



2nd Place

“Lactophenol-cotton blue clay stain” by Adriana Celis Ramirez and Valeri Sáenz Moncaleano from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.
“Lactophenol-cotton blue clay stain” by Adriana Celis Ramirez and Valeri Sáenz Moncaleano from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.

Fungi play important roles in many aspects of human life, including medicine, food, and agriculture. A one health approach recognizes that people, animals, and the environment are interconnected. This clay sculpture represents the interconnection between clay a fine-grained natural soil material (the environment) and human mycosis. Clay develops plasticity when wet, as well as Aspergillus, Penicillum, Rhizopus, and Fusarium can cause invasive infection after a flood or as Fusarium can cause opportunistic infection in aquatic animals. Sculpting is the art of shaping and carving a moldable material, in a similar way mould species are able to form biofilms that contribute to persistent infection. In recent years it has been recognized the role of the environment and fungicides in the patient response to antifungals drugs. Is time to develop interdisciplinarity research studies where animals, plants, and human disease interactions can be explored through coordination and collaborative actions, and as in clay call all actors to sculpture and shape a one health approach.

People's Choice (image)

Voted on by our Facebook followers.

“Beauty and the Beast” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore.
“Beauty and the Beast” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore.

This masterpiece was inspired by the rose in “Beauty and the Beast”. It was a memorable moment driven from my childhood as it was one of the first cartoons that I could recall. It is such an honor to be able to display and share my childhood to everyone in this agar art contest. Reason being, this cartoon was so dear to me as I used to watch it with my mom before she became a single parent and had to work for us. It was a time when she was still a homemaker and the moments were so precious to me. The agar that I used for this project is nutrient agar, dyed pink for the rose and green for the fallen leaves. The bacteria I used for this project is a Gram positive, orange bacteria where I got from environmental sampling. The bacteria is perfect to outline the leaf veins. Furthermore I used a flower mould and a strong metal coil to hold the agar and make it look like a rose. I also used a glass container and led lights to give it a magical and mystical look. Finally the photo was taken inside a black box with yellow light giving it a glowing effect.

Open Category, Kids (12 and Under)

1st Place

“The Mysterious Microbes” by Ethan Lin from South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, N.Y.
“The Mysterious Microbes” by Ethan Lin from South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, N.Y.

I drew many different types of microbes, they come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Each microbe has a different job, some are like doctors, some are like fighters, and some are not nice to other microbes. They all live together in one place, doing their own job like artists work to mix paints and make new colors.

All 2020 Finalists

Thanks to this year's judges!

Michele Banks
Mehmet Berkmen
Bornali Bhattacharjee
Karen Carroll
Scott Chimileski
Greetchen Díaz-Muñoz
Tim Donohue
Laura Echarren
Ashley Hagen
Jamie Henzy


Islam Hussein
Eugenia Inda
Zahir Islam
Eleni Koursari
Kate Lin
Girish Mahajan
Stanley Maloy
Mary Marinaro
Erin McElvania
Virginia Miller
Aradhita Parasrampuria


Robin Patel
Maria Peñil Cobo
Daniel Pham
Vincent Racaniello
Joana Ricou
Nina Salama
Susie Sharp
Joseph Shuttleworth
Tasha Sturm
Jasmine Temple
Marylynn Yates

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