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Agar Art: A beautiful art form made from live Microorganisms…

Agar Art: A beautiful art form made from live Microorganisms…

Agar art is an artwork created by culturing microorganisms in certain patterns on the jelly-like growth medium known as agar. It is also known as the germ art or microbial art. It is a technique used by science enthusiasts to create detailed and vibrant images by controlled growth of bacterial or fungal cultures on plates. Alexander Fleming, who discovered the antibiotic properties of Penicillin on an agar plate long back in 1928, created images using live organisms, is considered the first agar artist. However, this field of scientific art did not gather much attention until the last decade, when the American Society of Microbiology brought agar art into the limelight in 2015 with an annual contest. Now, researchers around the world enthusiastically use microorganisms to create stunning pictures. To create this art, agar powder, a jellylike substance made from red seaweeds is mixed with sterilized water and nutrients to create a transparent, semi-solid substance. It is sterilized into a liquid, poured into a Petri dish, left to cool and solidify. This serves as the canvas or base and the life support for the microorganism like bacteria and fungus. Streaking various microorganisms in particular shape on the surface of an agar plate not only requires the use of sterile instruments like inoculation needle or loop but also a skillful hand. Using these tools, the cultured bacteria cells are taken from their broth and gently painted onto the agar. The plates are incubated and after growth the streaked lines are transformed into beautiful patterns. A commonly used bacterium for making agar art is E. coli. Several other microorganisms like Staphylococcus aureus,  Enterococcus faecalis, Serratia, Pseudomonas, Bacillus subtilis , Micrococcus roseus, Saccharomyces cerevisiae ,  Aspergillus flavus and  Fusarium sp.,  are frequently used to give various colors to the design. Every organism has particular nutritional needs and can produce different pigments when grown on a particular media. A single cell of a bacterium can grow to over several billion cells overnight producing a desired pattern on the Petri plate. Some microbiologists also use a method called bacteriography which involves selectively killing certain areas of a bacterial culture with the help of radiation to produce a pattern. The scientists working in this art form have to be very vigilant, as they often use human pathogens for their designs. To avoid accidents in the lab, agar artists often work with microbes in a controlled environment and aseptic conditions. They often have to wait for days to see whether the microbial growth they started turns into an inspiring illustration. Microbial art is time consuming and the result isn’t always as preferred. One needs to be extremely careful while inoculating the microbes on the agar plate to avoid contamination and overgrowth. Microbiologist sometimes adds powdered charcoal to the agar to make the background black. An agar artist also collects samples from different sources to eventually find the desired micro-organism. Many such experiments are done to create a masterpiece. The rich and vibrant patterns that the bacteria produce as they expand can be photographed and preserved.  Agar art is a unique and exciting approach to blend art and science, and it is being recognized as a productive channel for both scientists and artists giving a creative dimension to these minute organisms.

Dr. Jaya Philip,

Assistant Professor,

Department of Microbiology,

Patna Women’s College