ASM Agar Art Contest: 2021 Winners

Microbes have been getting a bad rap lately, thanks primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, for this year's Agar Art Contest, we asked participants to showcase the theme of "Microbes Are Beautiful." Answering this call, we received 300 submissions across all categories from submitters in 31 different countries.

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

To see all the entries, visit our flickr album and prepare to be astounded!

Interested in Using an Agar Art Image?

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Traditional Category (Professional)

First Place

Agar Art, 'Microlilies'


Second Place

Agar Art, 'Guayacan Feathers'

"Guayacan Feathers"

Third Place

Agar Art, 'Fiesta Flamenca'

"Fiesta Flamenca"

People's Choice

Agar Art, 'Tree, Lungs of the Planet'

"Tree, Lungs of the Planet"

Traditional Category (Non-Professional)

Traditional Category (Kids)

Open Category (General)

First Place

Agar Art, 'Ocean's Glow'

"Ocean's Glow"

Second Place

Agar Art, 'Ode to Kate Rubins'

"Ode to Kate Rubins"

Third Place

"A Microbial Aquarium"

People's Choice

Agar Art, 'Christmas Tree'

"Christmas Tree"

Open Category (Kids)

Traditional Category (Professional) Winners

First Place: 'Microlilies'

Agar art, 'Microlillies'

At first glance, you can see a cluster of waterlilies blooming on clear lakes. But once you have a closer look you will recognize that those lilies are actually microorganisms growing on cystine-lactose-electrolyte-deficient (CLED) agar plates. In fact, they were drawn with Rhodococcus rhodochrous, an orange appearing bacterium which is primarily found in soil and water. It was applied with brushes to achieve the fine strokes in the blossoms. The green pads were realized by making a solution comprising sterile water and Micrococcus luteus and applying it to the agar with a brush as well. The white, fluffy-looking parts of the lilies come about due to Geotrichum candidum, a mildew, living in dairy as well as the human buccal mucosa and lungs.

The scientific background behind the yellow parts of the waterlilies is a fascinating discoloration of the CLED agar. Containing the pH sensitive indicator bromothymol blue, which turns yellow at an acid pH, meaning a pH lower than 7, a color shift from blue to yellow is caused by the presence of acids, lactic acid for example. Lactic acid is formed by the well-known bacterium Escherichia coli when fermenting the lactose which is found in the agar. The composition of agar plates was chosen to resemble giant lotus pads swimming on a lake, now creating tiny lakes for the waterlilies themselves. The concept consists of 5 smaller (9 cm/3,54 in in diameter) and 2 bigger (14,5 cm/5,71 in in diameter) agar plates. They are sitting on a LED-light plate, providing bright lights from below and accentuating the strokes in the blossoms. Before taking the picture, the plates were incubated for 5 days at room temperature.

By Sonja Borndörfer, Norbert W. Hopf and Michael Lanzinger; University of Applied Sciences, Weihenstephan-Triesdorf, Freising, Germany.

Second Place: 'Guyacan Feathers'

Agar art, 'Guyacan Feathers'

The Popol Vuh sacred book of the Mayan culture relates that Kukulkan, God of creation, and Tepeu, God of the Heaven, created the world. When they decide give life to the birds, they blew divinely on the Guayacan tree. The blue-green leaves of the tree flew and, in the flight, a majestic bird with long plumage shaped like a feathered serpent called Quetzal was born. In the Prehispanic Era, the Quetzal was associated with the god Kukulkan. For the Mayan culture, the Quetzal was a sacred bird considered a symbol of abundance, fertility and power. Its plumage was so important that it was a kind of bargaining chip; at that time, killing the Quetzal merited death. The radiant Quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in America for its intense colors in the feathers, especially in the male who sings and dances to woo the female.

The color of the body of the quetzal is variable depending on the light. It has golden tones up to blue and emerald green, impressing the human eye with the red color of its belly, not forgetting the dazzling yellow of its beak. The splendor of the feathers on the Quetzal’s tail highlights the greatness of its species.

"Guayacan Feathers"
By Marlene Luengas Bautista and Yanet Tovar, Instituto Nacional de Pediatria, Mexico City, Mexico.

Third Place: 'Fiesta Flamenca'

Agar art, 'Fiesta Flamenca'

Flamenco is an intricate art form, a vehicle of expression, capable of depicting soft and sweet emotions as well as anger and strength. It has a rich cultural history and was created by the gypsy people of Andalucía, Spain. "Fiesta Flamenca" is my microbial homage to this beautiful style of art. My piece depicts a flamenco dancer mid-turn, twisting her skirt and facing away from the audience. Her skirt is tastefully painted with Klebsiella pneumoniae and Enterococcus faecalis. Her ivory white skin is made from a blend of Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans. The pink flowers in her hair and her gold hoop earrings are thanks to Staphylococcus saprophyticus and Micrococcus luteus, respectively. Her black curls, elegantly gathered in a bun, are composed of Salmonella enterica. Together, these microbes portray a living representation of a graceful Flamenco performance. As a flamenco dancer myself, I wanted to use my passion for agar art to pay tribute to one of my other passions.

"Fiesta Flamenca"
By Mireya Duran, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Dallas.

People's Choice: 'Tree, Lungs of the Planet'

Agar art, 'Tree, Lungs of the Planet'

We call our work this way since trees have the ability to absorb carbon dioxide and therefore produce oxygen for the planet, just as our lungs do for human beings. For this agar artwork, a highly selective medium, Brilliant Green Agar, was used, in which each bronchiole or each branch is made from Salmonella. This bacterium does not ferment lactose or sucrose, and that is why we obtain a red background color and white colonies. The strain of Salmonella sp. was provided by our mentor in the field of microbiology.

Lactose and sucrose are the fermentable carbohydrates, the red phenol is the pH indicator which turns yellow when there is acid production from the fermentation of sugars, sodium chloride maintains the osmotic balance, and bright green acts as a selective agent that fundamentally inhibits the development of Gram-positive flora and some Gram-negative microorganisms. The non-fermenting colonies of lactose and sucrose grow on this medium in a pinkish or transparent white color, on a red background. Lactose- or sucrose-fermenting bacteria capable of growing on this medium develop yellow-green or yellow-green colonies on a greenish-yellow background.

"Tree, Lungs of the Planet"
By Litzy Amairany Arroyo Aranda, Juan Carlos Elizalde and David Rangel Castro, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma De Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.

Traditional Category (Non-Professional) Winners

First Place: 'The Lowly Snail, a Mighty Tale of Resistance'

Agar art, 'The Lowly Snail, a Mighty Tale of Resistance'

Since the COVID pandemic began, every day has brought new challenges. This inspired me to create my piece of agar art to portray the theme of resilience. The symbolism of this creation is twofold. The snail’s shell, with its beautiful spiral curves, is in the shape of a helix. The helix is a traditional symbol of resilience, growth, and evolution. It represents the ability to withstand change by adapting and growing in the face of adversity. While in the midst of the COVID crisis we may have felt at times that we were circling in a vortex with no way out, humankind has persevered and has begun to emerge from this spiral.

The snail itself is also deeply rooted in symbolism. Snails have been traditionally associated with the qualities of wisdom, slow progress, persistence, and patience. Its slow and steady nature have allowed this creature to adapt to many variations in its environment. It is also uniquely able to withstand change by carrying its home on its back. The snail can retreat into its home during times of adversity and then emerge when it feels safe again. Similarly, humans retreated to their homes during the height of the COVID crisis and are now slowly and cautiously re-emerging and striving to get back to normal life.

In this creation, I used CHROMagar Candida plates and created my depiction of a snail using various yeast species. This medium contains substrates linked to colorless molecules which yield a specific color when processed enzymatically by certain yeast species. This helps a microbiologist rapidly identify individual yeast species based on the colony color they display when grown on this agar.

Yeast species are also amazingly adaptable and resilient. Just think about the dried yeast used to make bread. Here is an organism too small to see with the naked eye that is a single cell with no brain and yet can survive extreme drying (where it can sit dormant in a package for at least 2 years) and with a little warm water, comes back to life. Microbes are amazingly resilient! Here’s to hoping the same for humankind!

"The Lowly Snail-A Mighty Tale of Resilience"
By Joanne Touchberry, North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health, Raleigh, N.C.

Second Place: 'A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies-Monarchs Are Our Friends, Part 2'

Agar art, 'Kaleidoscope of Butterflies'

This mosaic was inspired by monarch butterflies, which symbolize hope and transformation. A large tree teeming with flowers stands to the left, which provides shelter to butterflies when they need to rest or wait for the weather to clear up. Many butterflies are enjoying flight or visiting flowers for nectar. Three caterpillars are resting on a large leaf. Two caterpillars are hungrily eating while a third caterpillar has dropped into its "J" shape, getting ready to pupate. Just behind the striped caterpillars is one that already pupated and is now a chrysalis, representing the first of two dramatic transformations. The oval chrysalis looks like a green jewel sparkling in the sun.

In Hawaii, monarch butterflies are non-migratory, which means they can be found throughout the year. Monarch Butterfly Friends Hawaii was formed as a support group and information resource for Hawaiian residents to protect and nurture these inspiring insects. The frequent rainbows in the sky and unique ecosystem make us feel #luckyweliveinHawaii every day. For our out-of-state collaborators, we are happy to share our year-round experience with monarchs any time!

The artists created their design online using—a website that lets anyone make art with biology—and the works were printed with a liquid-handling robot at Counter Culture Labs.

"A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies-Monarchs Are Our Friends, Part 2"
By Marcia Murakami, Judy Nguyen, Shawn Sato, Frank Tran and Kim Xiong, of Monarch Butterfly Friends Hawaii.

Third Place: 'Butterfly Garden'

Agar art, 'Butterfly Garden'

Butterflies come in such a variety of colors and sizes showcasing the wonder that nature has to offer. The life cycle of caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is an amazing awe-inspiring process, with such gorgeous end results. As a pollinator, butterflies are crucial to the continued health of our planet. However, as their natural habitat disappears, so do the butterflies. Planting a pollinator garden is a great way to build back their natural habitat and brighten up your yard at the same time! Our piece is inspired by the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies we've seen visiting our gardens. They are the state butterfly of North Carolina, and their bright yellow color is a wonderful surprise when spotted in your garden.

Not only are butterflies beautiful, they are an essential part of our ecosystem. The agar we use in our lab is the same. It is an essential part of our workflow, but it can also be beautiful. This piece is made up of 2 media types we use in our lab for the isolation of Enteric Pathogens, most commonly Salmonella and Shigella. The Xylose Lysine Deoxycholate (XLD) Agar was used for most of the plates in the piece with Salmonella enterica used for the black colonies, E. coli for the yellow, and Shigella flexneri for the clear/pink colonies. The Brilliant Green agar was used for the chrysalis's plate and the "brilliant" green color is made with E. coli. Using the different colony appearances, we can pick out the most suspicious colonies to test so we can isolate the pathogen, or we can use the plates to make beautiful art pieces.

"Butterfly Garden"
By Liliana Flores and Rebecca Wall, North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health, Raleigh, N. C.

People's Choice: 'Lord Krishna and Radha on Peacock Feather'

Agar art, 'Lord Krishna and Radha'

Lord Krishna & Radha created with the help of a Stabifexi loop and different types of bacteria.

"Couple of Lord Krishna and Radha on Peacock Feather"
By Basanti Dalai and Rahul Kumar Banerjee, Balco Medical Center, Raipur in Chhattishgarh, India.

Traditional Category (Kids) Winners

First Place: 'A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies-Monarchs Aer Our Friends, Part 1'

Agar art, 'Kaleidoscope of Butterflies'

This butterfly mosaic, designed by children 2-9 years old, represents the wonder they feel when they see butterflies and nature. The inspiration comes from monarch butterflies, which are currently making their annual migration to Mexico for overwintering. Each artistic element was designed independently but fit together in this wonderful scene that evokes peacefulness and reminds us of the simple joys in life. The butterflies fly freely through the sky, passing by a rainbow that symbolizes hope. A butterfly selects 1 pink flower to sip nectar before it rejoins its friends. A heart-tree stands tall, waiting for butterflies to come roost and find protection in its branches and leaves.

The artists created their design online using—a website that lets anyone make art with biology—and the works were printed with a liquid-handling robot at Counter Culture Labs.

"A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies-Monarchs Are Our Friends, Part 1"
By Ayah Ali, Yara Ali, Emilia Heng, Hannah Xiong and Samuel Xiong, of Monarch Butterfly Friends Hawaii.

Second Place" 'A Sunny Day at the Beach'

Agar art, 'A Sunny Day at the Beach'

This piece is a palm tree under the sun on a beach. I used bacteria that I collected from 4 spaces: my hand, my desk, my tongue, and some yeast. I let it grow in a dark space for 24 hours.

"A Sunny Day at the Beach"
By Will Post, Hillside Elementary School, Montclair, N.J.

Open Category (General) Winners

First Place: 'Ocean's Glow'

Agar art, 'Ocean's Glow'

This piece tries to capture the magic of fluorescence microscopy. As a graduate student who studies marine microbes, I frequently count bacteria and viruses from seawater. In order to see these tiny, microscopic organisms, I stain them with a fluorescent dye. Then, all the microbes will glow bright green under a fluorescence microscope and resemble a starry night sky. In this piece, I adapted that concept and painted the bacteria and viruses using fluorescent paint. In broad daylight, they are difficult to see. However, under a black light, a galaxy of viruses and bacteria illuminates the ocean. Despite the amount of time I spend looking at microscope images, I am always in awe of their beauty. Through this painting, I hope to share the feeling of being immersed in this microscopic universe while conceptualizing fluorescence microscopy.

"Ocean's Glow"
By Natascha Varona, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla.

Second Place: 'Ode to Kate Rubins'

Agar art, 'Ode to Kate Rubins'

I was inspired by an ASM talk by Kate Rubins, who was the first person to sequence DNA in space and do remarkable microbiology experiments, pushing the boundaries of what is possible as a microbiologist. Here, old Petri dishes with microbes from Earth's soil are aligned to represent each planet of our solar system. I wonder, what other microbes are out there?

"Ode to Kate Rubins"
By Sarah Adkins-Jablonsky, Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, Donthan, Ala.

Third Place: 'A Microbial Aquarium'

To be brutally honest, this piece was made because I heard of the competition on Twitter, and I happened to be taking an intro to microbiology course this year. I decided to combine my knowledge from the course and apply it to this piece, focusing mostly on marine microbes because I've always found it cool to imagine if bacteria were the size of whales.

This particular piece features such a concept, using an aquarium full of giant microbes as a showcase. Notable microbes featured are 2 giant Vibrio folgerii, which are found within a certain species of squid and help them glow. These bacteria have 2 chromosomes that are prominently featured in the animation as writhing blobs within the bacteria's cytoplasm along with the ribosomes, a feature shared by other bacteria within the Vibrio genus.

Other notable microbes featured are several colonies of trichodesmium cyanobacteria, which are sitting on the floor of the aquarium; 2 colonies of ambiguous streptococci, 2 colonies of bacilli, many different shapes of diatoms, 1 staphylococcus colony and 4 bacteriophages floating up and down. Of course, we can't forget about the humans sitting in front of the aquarium, who are covered by microbes.

"A Microbial Aquarium"
By Yujia Feng, University of Toronto, Toronto.

People's Choice: 'Christmas Tree'

Agar art, 'Christmas Tree'

We wish you a healthy and happy 2022 full of joy of science in advance. This abstract painting agar-plate demonstrates a new year celebration in front of a Christmas tree on a snowing night. You can watch the beautiful colors and patterns of fireworks created by bacteria on a selective agar plate. Christmas tree microfluidic device, which is a tool to mix 3 different fluids inside the channels, positioned inside the agar layers. Escherichia coli, which is abundant in the environment and the intestines of animals, wanted to join the Christmas party passing through the microfluidic channels. Interestingly, 3 different strains of E. coli refused to mix in the channel and spontaneously spread on the agar plate. Fireworks look great, don't they? This is what we call a real celebration. Turn the volume up. Enjoy the moment!

"Christmas Tree"
By Didem Rodoplu, He Cheng Kun, Cherng–Shyang Chang Cheng Yuan Kao and Chia-Hsien Hsu, National Health Research Institutes, Zhunan, Taiwan.

Open Category (Kids) Winners

First Place: 'Microbe Monsters'

Agar art, 'Microbe Monsters'

Hi everyone, my name is Xinyu, and I turn 6 this year. In my world of imagination, microbes looks like monsters and they come in different shapes and sizes. Most microbes are essential to life on Earth. However, some of them are harmful to humans, animals and plants and can cause disease. In my art piece, I drew angry microbe monsters to represent microbes that are harmful and friendly microbe monsters to represent microbes that are useful.

"Microbe Monsters"
By Lin Xinyu, PCF Sparkletots Tampines North 492, Singapore.

Second Place: 'Corona vs. Antibody'

Agar art, 'Corona vs. Antibody'

Aziliz is 6 years old. In her drawing, she wants to show that antibodies, generated through vaccination, are little superheroes that attack the evil coronavirus and help to save the human cells.

"Corona vs. Antibody"
By Aziliz Pernet, Richland Avenue Elementary School, Los Angeles.

Third Place: 'Greetings from Inside of a Piece of Blue Cheese'

Agar art, 'Inside a Piece of Blue Cheese'

Six-year-old Aziliz loves eating cheese. She also loves the good microbes that help to create cheese. The little creatures saying "Hi" from the inside of a piece of blue cheese were modeled after a Penicillium GIANTmicrobe she received from ASM last year.

"Greetings from the Inside of a Piece of Blue Cheese"
By Aziliz Pernet, Richland Avenue Elementary School, Los Angeles.