Amidst A Global Pandemic, Agar Art Contest Proves Microbes Still Represent Beauty

Dec. 15, 2020

Washington, D.C. – December 15, 2020 – The American Society for Microbiology announces the winners of their 6th annual Agar Art Contest. Submissions of artwork were created using living, growing microbes ‘painted’ on agar, a gelatin-like substance that serves as food for the microorganisms. This year, submissions were also accepted in a new “open” category, in which participants could illustrate the beauty of microbes using any art form. ASM’s Agar Art Contest began in 2015 and merges science with art to engage the public with microbiology and highlight the beauty and diversity of the microbial world.

“This year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that many people don’t have their usual access to labs, we decided to create a new ‘open’ category,” said Geoff Hunt, Ph. D., Public Outreach Specialist at the American Society for Microbiology, who organizes the contest. “Based on the amazingly creative submissions we got, this category will definitely be a part of the contest in future years!”

The Gardener
A panel of scientists and bioartists judged 189 entries (including videos, songs, and even a hand-made shirt) from 203 artists in 29 different countries and 27 U.S. states. The judges assessed entries based on their creativity, artistry of design, the scientific accuracy of their description, and their accessibility to a general audience.

"The Gardener," created by Joanne Dungo from Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Northridge, CA,  took 1st place in the contest. “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," said Joanne.
Microbial Peacock
"Microbial Peacock" won 2nd place. It was created by Balaram Khamari from the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India. “Peacock is the national bird of India. It represents regality, beauty, prosperity, harmony, and optimism. 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,’” said Balaram. It was created with Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Enterococcus faecalis.

3rd place
The 3rd place winner is "Micro-Nature in a spotted eagle ray," created by by Isabel Araque and Jenny Oñate from Quito, Ecuador. "In 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," the creators explained.

Beauty and the Beast
“LOBO,” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore, won the People's Choice award. "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," said Christian. It was created with Staphylococcus aureus grown on Baird Parker agar.

“I love my microbiome"
“Dinosaur at Sunset”

“I love my microbiome,” (left) by Ariana Gestal-Gurr from Shreveport, Louisiana, won 1st place in the kids contest. It was created with nasal microbiota on LB agar with the goal of demonstrating to kids what they have in their noses. “Dinosaur at Sunset,” (right) by Aziliz C Pernet, won 2nd place. It was created with Serratia marcescens (red) and Micrococcus luteus (yellow) on Tryptic Soy Agar by 5 year old Aziliz. This is her very first streak plate, depicting a dinosaur staring at an orange sky at sunset.

"Open" Category Winners:
Strands of Antisense
The 1st place winner is “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler from Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, which Riley describes as an abstrated artwork of the skin microbiome. The piece is multimedia: composed with natural stains (from berries, radishes, lemon juice and red onion), colored pencils, collage, masking fluid, prismacolor markers, gouache, paint pen and gel pen. (22"x30" White Stonehenge paper)

“Lactophenol-cotton blue clay stain,” by Adriana Celis Ramirez and Valeri Sáenz Moncaleano from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, won 2nd place. This artwork is a handmade clay sculpture, blue glass and a variety of blue and white clay paints. About a three-month job linking our scientific mind with our "artistic mind." 
Lactophenol-cotton blue clay stain

"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," said Adriana and Valeri.

“12 Days of Agar Art,” by Michael E. Taveirne, Regino M. Fernandes II, Nathaniel James Browning and Ty Grewell from North Carolina State University Microbiology Club in Raleigh, North Carolina, won 3rd place in the "open" contest.

"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," said the creators.

The People's Choice prize in the open category goes to “Hand Embroidered Pandemic Shirt” by Katherine Carpenter and Chris Carpenter from Shoreline, Washington. It was created from a white T-shirt hand embroidered using DMC floss in various colors.

"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)," said Katherine.

Beauty and the Beast

“Beauty and the Beast,” by Christian Gabriel Austria Lucas from the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore, won the People's Choice prize for an image. "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," said Christian.

The Mysterious Microbes

The winner of the "open" category for kids goes to “The Mysterious Microbes” by Ethan Lin from South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, New York. He used oil pastels on paper to draw many different types of microbes. "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," said Ethan.
The American Society for Microbiology is one of the largest professional societies dedicated to the life sciences and is composed of 30,000 scientists and health practitioners. ASM's mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences.

ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications, educational opportunities and advocacy efforts. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.  

Author: ASM Communications

ASM Communications
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