As long as researchers have been growing bacteria on Petri dishes using a jelly-like growth medium called agar, they have been struck by the interesting colors and growth patterns that microbes can produce from one experiment to the next. In the 1920s, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin, was so taken by this phenomenon that he developed his own palette of bacterial “paints” that he used in his spare time to create colorful pictures of houses, ballerinas, and other figures on the agar .
Fleming’s enthusiasm for agar art lives on among the current generation of microbiologists. In this short video, the agar (yellow) is seeded with bacterial colonies and, through the magic of time-lapse photography, you can see the growth of the colonies into what appears to be a lovely bouquet of delicate flowers. This piece of living art, developing naturally by bacterial colony expansion over the course of a week or two, features members of three bacterial genera: Serratia (red), Bacillus (white), and Nesterenkonia (light yellow).
This video, which is among the winners in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2015 BioArt competition, is the collaborative effort of Mehmet Berkmen, an NIH-supported scientist at New England BioLabs, Inc., Ipswich, MA, and artist Maria Peñil of Beverly, MA. The two met by chance about five years ago at a local eatery, and Berkmen introduced Peñil to the creative possibilities of agar art. An accomplished engraver, photographer, and sculptor, Peñil liked what she saw and began volunteering in Berkmen’s lab to learn how to culture bacteria and master this microbial medium with its variability in growth rates, color, and texture.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.