Van Gogh's "Starry Night" by MicrobeWorld user Msully9901 (all photos courtesy American Society for Microbiology)

Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” by Melanie Sullivan (all photos courtesy American Society for Microbiology)

A microbe-filled petri dish isn’t usually where one would expect to find art, but it turns out that cell colonies can form some pretty compelling visuals. We’ve already seen the potential of slime mold and the bacteria from Hans Ulrich Obrist’s nose, so it’s only natural that the medium is growing (in more ways than one): this year, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) launched its first Agar Art contest, inviting ASM members to get creative and paint with microorganisms within the framework of a petri dish. The society announced its winners last week, but we had some fun poking through the many submissions, which do show that yes, bacteria can be beautiful.

The honor of first place went to “Neurons,” a vivid work of yellow and orange bacteria by molecular biologist Mehmet Berkmen and mixed media artist Maria Penil, who integrates biological shapes into her own work. “NYC Biome MAP,” a glowing, grided representation of Manhattan, was runner-up, submitted by nonprofit community biolab Genspace. Created as part of this past IDEAS CITY Festival hosted by the New Museum, it is a crowdsourced work composed of multiple petri dishes, each prepared with stencils of city grids. Participants painted these with genetically engineered bacteria, modified with fluorescent protein so that they form a dazzling map under UV light.

Other standouts include a detailed portrait of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur rendered with a dark violet bacterium, a cosmic colony that resembles a piece of the night sky, and a five-dish homage to van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that recreates the painting’s famous swirls out of infection-causing bacteria.

Images of the petri dishes will be on view this fall at an Agar Art Gallery event hosted by Microbes After Hours. We knew there was another reason why they’re also called culture dishes.

"NYC Biome Map" by various scientists and artists, submitted by Christine Marizzi, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory/DNA Learning Center

Crowdsourced, “NYC Biome Map,” composed of multiple petri dishes of bacteria modified with fluorescent protein under UV light

"Neurons," by

Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil, “Neurons,” composed of Nesterenkonia, Deinococcus and Sphingomonas bacteria

harvest season

Maria Eugenia Inda, “Harvest Season,” composed of saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast

cell 2 cell

Maria Penil, “Cell to Cell,” composed of Deinococcus and Sphingomonas bacteria

louis pasteur

Dharshika Jayasuriya, “The Violet Louis Pasteur,” composed of Chromobacterium violaceum

hunger games

Lizah van der Aart, “Hunger Games,” composed of Streptomyces coelicolor and two Actinomyces


Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Penil, “Jellyfish,” composed of Nesterenkonia, Deinococcus, Sphingomonas, and Bacillus

The Streptomyces Sky

Joseph Sallmen, “The Streptomyces Sky,” composed of the soil bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...