Let's Get Crafty With Agar Art! : Short Wave Pull out your art supplies because it's time to get crafty--with agar! At the intersection of biology and art lies a creative medium that's actually alive. Scientists and artists practice etching designs on petri dishes with bacterial paint that can grow and multiply.

Aaron Scott talks with science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce about her foray into the agar art world.

Have another craft suggestion? Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Let's Get Crafty With Agar Art!

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1106686014/1107212358" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

AARON SCOTT, HOST:

Hello, SHORT WAVErs. Aaron Scott here with Nell Greenfieldboyce. Hello, Nell.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey, Aaron.

SCOTT: You're taking me somewhere delightful and surprising and creative, and I don't know where it is. What are we doing?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I wonder first, do you do any art yourself? Are you an artist?

SCOTT: I am a lapsed artist, I would say. I definitely have painted and drawn, but, currently, I mostly look at art and salivate a little bit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. I'm not a big artist either. I mean, I like to dabble in things. And the other day, I got this opportunity to work with something that most people don't ever use. So I recently went to the library - one of the local public libraries here in Washington, D.C. - and down in the basement, they had set up all these art supplies. So it was, like, arts and crafts.

SCOTT: Are we talking, like, construction paper and scissors and things like that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No, no, no. No, no, no.

SCOTT: No.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As you know, this is a science show. And so what they had set up was plates with agar and little vials of bacteria.

SCOTT: Vials of bacteria?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. One of the people running this little demo who got me started is Jennifer Kerr.

What are we doing here?

JENNIFER KERR: We are actually taking bacteria, E. coli, and it's a special type of bacteria that has some extra DNA in it that allows for it to be colorful. So it actually creates a color palette, so to speak - paints. And we can create pieces of art with it, which is amazing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So you know what agar is, right?

SCOTT: That's like that gelatinous medium that you grow bacteria in in science class.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah - or microbiology labs or whatever. So there is this art form called agar art. Basically, people take these dishes with a layer of this sort of nutrient jello called agar, and they draw with living bacteria.

KERR: Would you like to go ahead and take a try?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sure.

KERR: All right. You can draw a star. You can draw your favorite bacterium. You can draw...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I feel like this is a lot of pressure.

KERR: No, it's not - but whatever your heart desires.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They give you a petri dish, and then you have these vials that are labeled, like, pink, you know, blue, purple. But the liquid in them is totally clear. The bacteria haven't, like, grown yet. That's what they're going to do once they get on the nutrients. And you drag the stick across the surface of the agar, like drawing on jello, you know? Like, it's not...

SCOTT: With an invisible ink.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: With an invisible ink - that's exactly what it's like. It's like drawing on jello with invisible ink.

So those are pretty awesome. And so these are - so this is pink and blue here.

KERR: We have pink and blue, and we have purple and green. The green's pretty special because we can actually put it underneath a special light that allows for it to fluoresce. It's the green fluorescent protein that's actually been taken from jellyfish.

SCOTT: I love this. So today on the show, where science meets art on a microbial scale. I'm Aaron Scott, and you are listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT: So now, this idea of making art with microbes - it's not something that was invented a couple of years ago. It goes back a really long time. Can you tell us a little bit about, you know, who were the first people to paint with bacteria?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So arguably, the first people lived 5,000 years ago...

SCOTT: Oh, wow. OK.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...In British Columbia. So basically, there are these things - microbial mats. So it's basically, like, layers of microbes that grow, like, in lakes or something like that. Apparently what they found by studying rock art is that people who lived back then would collect these microbial mats and, like, heat them up and get a sort of reddish pigment. And they would use this reddish pigment to, like, paint on the rocks. So you could argue that they were the first microbial artists. Although, they weren't painting with living bacteria. They were just sort of using it as a source for pigment. But the one person that people point to as a sort of, like, major historic figure who engaged in microbial art was Alexander Fleming.

SCOTT: OK.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you remember who Alexander Fleming is?

SCOTT: The gentleman who discovered penicillin.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Penicillin, exactly. Right. So, you know, around, like, the 1920s, he was studying all kinds of, you know, bacteria. And he was an artist, and he liked to draw and paint. And so sometimes he would take, like, paper and draw on it, like trace an image on it and then soak the paper in nutrients and then put in microbes that would grow and, like, color the drawing.

SCOTT: And I actually would love to know a little bit more about that. I mean, because we think of these things as being invisible - they are so small that they wouldn't really have color - why is there pigment, and why are different microbes different colors?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Actually, colored bacteria existed before vision did.

SCOTT: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bacteria have been around for a really long time, longer than multicellular...

SCOTT: Far before eyeballs.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah - creatures. And so it's just - they're apparently just byproducts of their various enzymes and life processes. It's not like they're doing anything necessarily with these colors. You know, you have to think about the fact that these bacteria potentially communicate with each other, right? The bacteria might interact. They might repel each other. I talked to Mehmet Berkmen. He's a scientist at New England BioLabs, and he says that these bacteria can influence each other in all sorts of ways.

MEHMET BERKMEN: They not only grow at different rates, different temperatures. They also communicate with each other. So what - a red bacteria might not be red beside a yellow one. So it's not just like painting. It's also understanding them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mehmet has been exploring the world of agar art in his lab for a while now, even before something that the American Society for Microbiology started doing, which is this agar art contest. So basically every year since 2015, they've been having this contest. And, you know, they get, like, hundreds of entries from all around the world. They just had a party at - one of the main microbe meetings was here in Washington, D.C., and they had this cocktail party where they invited some of the winners to come and present their art.

I love this one.

So people were drinking wine. It was very much, like, a sort of art scene kind of thing. And...

SCOTT: Like a gallery opening.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the pictures are all made of bacteria.

SCOTT: So what did they look like? What were the highlights?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Oh, there was all kinds of stuff. You know, there was a portrait of Barack Obama. There was another using microbes that were taken and cultured from a woman and her daughter's bodies - so sort of showing their microbial connection between the two of them. Another one looked really simple. It was this koi fish and this lotus flower, but it was actually really complicated to make. I talked to the artist. Her name is Arwa Hadid.

ARWA HADID: When you look at it at first glance, it's kind of just, like, a very normal, like, flower and fish. But I used nine different organisms to get it, to get the shading right, to get the outlines right, to really pop. So most people, when they look at it, don't really assume that there is nine different organisms that are - went into making it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One guy standing next to us pointed at her stuff and was like, wow, that is really hard to do.

SCOTT: This all sounds so complex and also so very, very cool. What else struck you, Nell?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, there was one that I really like. It's made of dozens and dozens of square petri dishes. And they're laid out in the shape of Manhattan. The bacteria in the dishes are tracing all the sort of streets in New York City.

SCOTT: Wow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And I talked with the researcher who did this, Christine Marizzi, and her friends and colleagues there. They got this idea to basically just, like, give random people walking by in New York City the opportunity to draw their corner of the city in microbes.

CHRISTINE MARIZZI: You always want to make sure to have this personal connection, right? So I asked them, so where do you live? Do you live, like, you know, downtown? Do you want to - I don't know. Do you want to pick Chinatown? And this is, like - you paint your street you actually are just going to be living in. So - and very often they just really picked, like, the place they live.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was just the same year that there had been this, like, sort of report of plague bacteria in the subway. So, you know, sort of, like, bacteria in the city was on people's minds.

MARIZZI: People were aware but also frightened of microbes in the city. So let's talk about microbes around you and also, like, you know, how you can actually culture them and, you know, how to use them for good stuff.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I think that people underestimate how much of science is just mucking around and, like, playing with things and trying different things and having fun.

MARIZZI: No, scientists are really creative and fun people. We have - we always talk about science identity, but, you know, a part of science identity is also like, you know, come up with very novel solutions. And I think that's what - like, art can, you know, express that very well. I mean, I'm an artist, and I'm a scientist. And, you know, you cannot reduce me to one persona.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is a field of art where there's still tons that could be done. I mean, we've barely scratched the surface of microbial art here.

SCOTT: (Laughter) Do you want to share your picture?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, yeah, I'll send it to you. I mean, you can take a look. Behold my masterpiece.

SCOTT: OK, this is beautiful. I see a reddish flower with green petals, maybe a stem and a green leaf and then these, like, little purple dots that I'm going to imagine are, like, you know, pollen just kind of filtering through the air.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You're like every parent who ever looks at a picture that their kid gives them. Oh, it's beautiful. It's - yeah, it's - whatever it is is gorgeous. Yeah. I don't think I was really, like, pushing the artistic form forward here. I wasn't, like, pushing the envelope of microbe art, but you get the idea.

SCOTT: And the beautiful thing is that it would change over time. I mean, if this was in your fridge, it would slowly grow and morph like a flower.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. They don't last forever.

SCOTT: Well, Nell, thank you for making the invisible visible for us in a most beautiful manner.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT: This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and Rebecca Ramirez. It was edited by Gisele Grayson, who is also our senior supervising editor, with help from Thomas Lu. Rachel Carlson checked the facts, and the audio engineer was Stu Rushfield. Beth Donovan is our senior director, and Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.