Art created in a petri dish in India has just won an international award

ByHarikrishnan Nair
Jan 24, 2021 06:37 AM IST

Researcher Balaram Khamari “plants” live bacteria in a jelly-like substance called agar, to create agar art in intricate patterns.

Talk about art in unexpected places. Balaram Khamari’s canvas is the petri dish. He arranges microorganisms in such a way that they will form artistic patterns as they grow. The medium he uses is agar — a jelly-like substance made from seaweed — which is why he and other creators like him are called agar artists.

Khamari’s Microbial Peacock (above) won second prize at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) annual agar art contest in December.
Khamari’s Microbial Peacock (above) won second prize at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) annual agar art contest in December.

Khamari, 26, is a doctoral fellow in medical microbiology at the Sri Sathya Sai deemed university in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh. He’s been “painting” with microbes for just over a year and already, in December, one of his art works — Microbial Peacock — won second prize at the American Society for Microbiology’s (ASM) annual agar art contest.

A panel of scientists and bio-artists judged 189 creations from 29 countries. Entries were evaluated on creativity, artistry, scientific accuracy, and accessibility to the general public. At first glance, Microbial Peacock may seem unremarkable. Give tracing paper and a pencil, almost anyone could draw a bird like it. Except this drawing is alive — the lines and dots that form the intricacies of the work are made up of three kinds of bacteria. “All are highly pathogenic,” Khamari says, rather cheerily. “So it must be done in a controlled protective environment like a lab.”

Watch | Award-winning art in a petri dish

The peacock represents regality, beauty, prosperity and optimism, ASM said, when announcing the results on social media. “Various traditional art forms in India are inspired by the magnificent symmetric arrangement of the peacock’s plumage and its flexible neck,” the statement noted. “An integration of these traditional art forms with agar art is being presented [here].”

Khamari says this medium allows him to combine his love for art and his fascination with science. Ever since he first heard about agar art from a colleague, he’s been tinkering with the petri dishes and microbes. He makes his own agar, by heating and cooling agar-agar powder, much as one might do with jelly. “The agar provides nutrients to get the microorganisms to multiply,” Khamari says.

For brushes, he uses the thin metallic loops that scientists use to streak a microbe onto a petri dish. Handily, these come in different sizes, designed to vary depending on how many microbes one might be looking to apply.

The selection of the microbes depends on how the artist wants it to grow and if the work needs any colour. While there are several bacteria that give off colour naturally as they grow, others can be genetically engineered to produce colours; still others can be fluorescent. Some artists also use fungi and yeast to add depth to their pieces.

While this may sound like fun, Khamari says the result is always uncertain, because the agar artist is essentially painting with a substance invisible to the human eye — and one that is growing and changing all the time. “Just as, in a garden, you arrange plants by how you plant their seeds, similarly, in agar, we ‘plant’ spots of the microbe and hope they will grow and follow the paths we’ve traced for them,” Khamari says.

The process can be nerve-wracking, but at least it’s reasonably quick. In the right temperatures, microbe colonies typically grow to the required concentrations in seven to eight hours. “It took many plates of rejected material before I finally ended up with the peacock that was my submission,” Khamari says.

Agar art, incidentally, has a rich heritage. One of the earliest such artists was Alexander Fleming, the Scotsman best known for discovering penicillin. He reportedly painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers fighting and mothers feeding their children, all using bacteria. Today, artists create oceanscapes, Christmas trees, stars and planets, animals, 3D volcanoes and even recreate famous paintings, all in a petri dish.

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