Bacteria As Art? Artist Paints ‘Starry Night’ In Petri Dish Using Colorful UTI Bacteria

Some artists use oil paints, some watercolor. Others chose to express themselves in charcoal, clay, or pastels. But, bacteria probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind as an expressive medium — until last month, when a group of microbiologists (one of whom recreated Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) turned petri dishes into tiny canvases.

An unusual art contest joined microbiologists and citizen scientists in a competition to create something beautiful from bacteria, using a petri dish as a canvas. One of the most recognizable pieces was a recreation of “Starry Night,” using bacterium that cause urinary tract infections.

The petri dish art was created as part of the annual Agar Art Contest, which is sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology, Live Science reported.

As part of the contest, scientist-artists grew microbes in a petri dish filled with a jelly-like material called agar, in which microrganisms can live and grow, USA Today added; bacterial and yeast colonies were used as paint.

Eighty-five people met the challenge and one of them was Melanie Sullivan, who painted “Starry Night” in five dishes. Different strains have different colors, so Sullivan had to chose carefully.

“The artist picked the bacteria they wanted to use based on the different color expressed when that strain … grows,” explained spokeswoman Emily Dilger from the American Society for Microbiology.

For “Starry Night,” she needed brown, white, and blue-green, FoxNews reported. Brown came from Proteus mirabilis, which has a “swarming motility ” and is a common cause of urinary tract infections. White came from Acinetobacter baumanii, which can cause infections in people with weak immune systems. Blue green is the product of Enterococcus faecalis, which invades the GI tract and also causes lower UTIs.

It sounds disgusting, but the end result is beautiful. Vincent Van Gogh may not have understood how the recreation was painted, but he likely would’ve appreciated this version of his famous “Starry Night.”

Unfortunately, Melanie’s “Starry Night” didn’t win any awards, but the other entrants’ petri dish art were just as impressive. A piece called “Neurons” won first place, in which the artists painted nerve cells on their dish using a yellow microrganism called Nesterenkonia and orange ones called Deinococcus and Sphingomonas. The artists let these strains grow for a few days, then sealed it with epoxy to cut off the oxygen they needed to keep growing.

One of the most impressive pieces was a “microbial map” of New York City using a harmless strand of Escherichia coli that had been engineered with fluorescent proteins, ABC News added. The petri dishes were prepped with stencils of the city’s street grid; 50 people helped and they won second place.

“NYC is a melting pot of cultures — both human and microbial — and every citizen has a personalised microbiome,” the group explained said in its submission. “Collectively, we shape NYC’s microbiome by our lifestyle choices, and this unseen microbial world significantly impacts us.

In another rather artistic piece, the artist specifically chose her strains for their symbolism; the microbiologist responsible, Maria Eugenia Inda, won third prize for “Harvest Time.”

The petri dish displays a scene of a farmhouse among a field of wheat, and Inda painted it using a species of yeast — Saccharomyces cerevisiae — to create reds and yellows.

“[The species] is the active agent responsible for our most basic foods — bread, wine, and beer since ancient civilizations,” she said.

The most creatively-named piece in the competition had to be from Englishwoman Nicola Fawcett, who used gut bacteria for her entry, “The Wild Garden of the Gut Bacteria.”

For pictures of the entries, click here.

[Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons