The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

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