ASM Agar Art Contest: 2020 Winners

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting normal life, we decided to open things up a bit for this year's Agar Art Contest. In addition to the usual submissions, we allowed participants to utilize a broad range of media to create their artwork and submit to the "Open" category. Despite the challenges, we still received 189 submissions from participants in 29 countries.

Browse the winning images and read the stories behind the art:

To see all the entries, view our Facebook albums of "Traditional" Category finalists and "Open" Category finalists.

Interested in Using an Agar Art Image?

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Traditional Category

First Place

Agar Art, 'The Gardener'

"The Gardener"

Second Place

Agar Art, 'Microbial Peacock'

"Microbial Peacock"

People's Choice

Agar Art, 'Lobo'


Open Category

People's Choice (Image)

Agar Art, 'Beauty and the Beast'

"Beauty and the Beast"

People's Choice (Video)

"Hand-Embroidered Pandemic Shirt"

Kids Categories (Traditional, Open)

First Place (Traditional)

Agar Art, 'I Love My Microbiome'

"I Love My Microbiome"

Second Place (Traditional)

Agar Art, 'Dinosaur at Sunset'

"Dinosaur at Sunset"

First Place (Open)

Agar Art, 'The Mysterious Microbes'

"The Mysterious Microbes"

Traditional Category Winners

First Place: 'The Gardener'

Agar art, 'The Gardener'

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!

"The Gardener"
By Joanne Dungo, Northridge Hospital Medical Center, Northridge, Calif.

Second Place: 'Microbial Peacock'

Agar art, 'Microbial Peacock'

The 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 2 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.

"Microbial Peacock"
By Balaram Khamari, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India.

Third Place: 'Micro-Nature in a Spotted Eagle Ray'

Agar art, 'Micro-Nature in a Spotted Eagle Ray'

At the 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's pectoral fins look like an eagle's 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!

"Micro-Nature in a Spotted Eagle Ray"
By Isabel Araque and Jenny Onate, Quito, Ecuador.

People's Choice: 'LOBO'

Agar art, 'LOBO'

This piece is 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 to 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 1 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.

By Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas, Institute of Technical Education, Singapore.

Open Category Winners

First Place: 'Strands of Antisense'

Agar art, 'Strands of Antisense'

"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 more than 1 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.

"Strands of Antisense"
By Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University, Starkville, Miss.

Second Place: 'Lactophenol-Cotton Blue Clay Stain'

Agar art, 'Blue Clay Stain'

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.

"Lactophenol-Cotton Blue Clay Stain"
By Adriana Celis Ramirez and Valeri Sáenz Moncaleano, Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota, Colombia.

Third Place: '12 Days of Agar Art'

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.

"12 Days of Agar Art"
By Michael E. Taveirne, Regino M. Fernandes II, Nathaniel James Browning and Ty Grewell, North Carolina State University Microbiology Club, Raleigh, N.C.

People's Choice (Image): 'Beauty and the Beast'

Agar art, 'Beauty and the Beast'

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.

"Beauty and the Beast"
By Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas, Institute of Technical Education, Singapore.

People's Choice (Video): 'Hand Embroidered Pandemic Shirt'

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 into 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.

"Hand-Embroidered Pandemic Shirt"
By Katherine Carpenter and Chris Carpenter, Shoreline, Wash.

Traditional Category (Kids) Winners

First Place: 'I Love My Microbiome'

Agar art, 'I Love My Microbiome'

The goal of this work was to demonstrate to 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 as 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, she said "Oh, mommy that's nasty." We talked about the good guys, the microbiota that help you 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.

"I Love My Microbiome"
By Ariana Gestal-Gurr, Shreveport, La.

Second Place: 'Dinosaur at Sunset'

Agar art, 'Dinosaur at Sunset'

Aziliz is 5 years old. She is intrigued by microbes and dinosaurs. This is her very first streak plate. She combined her 2 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).

"Dinosaur at Sunset"
By Aziliz C. Pernet, Los Angeles.

Open Category (Kids) Winner

First Place: 'The Mysterious Microbes'

Agar art, 'Mysterious Microbes'

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 1 place, doing their own job like artists work to mix paints and make new colors.

"The Mysterious Microbes"
By Ethan Lin, South Grove Elementary School, Syosset, N.Y.