SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
When you're an artist, it's hard to tell when the muse might strike. When you're a scientist and an artist, sometimes, she strikes in the lab. Balaram Khamari is a doctoral student in microbiology. He's also an award-winning agar artist who cultures bacteria into colors and shapes, creating images in Petri dishes. Khamari is one of a growing number of scientists across the world who make agar art, and he joins us now from Puttaparthi, India. Welcome to the program.
BALARAM KHAMARI: Thank you. Thank you. My pleasure.
MCCAMMON: So first, I've seen some of these images online, and they're incredibly cool, very, very pretty. But since this is radio, can you just describe for us what this looks like?
KHAMARI: The image for which I got an award from the American Society of Microbiology, the name of the piece is "Microbial Peacock."
MCCAMMON: This is a peacock, for our listeners who can't see it, surrounded by feathers.
KHAMARI: Yes, it is an art piece, which is made with living bacteria. The bacteria grow on their growth medium in such a way that they look like an art.
MCCAMMON: And you're using agar, as we mentioned. Is this the same stuff that some of us might have in our kitchens, like the vegetarian gelatin, essentially?
KHAMARI: Yes. Yes. But in this case, the agar-agar powder that we use is even more purified version. And it is not only agar-agar. With agar-agar, we add other substances like salt and other nutrients like beef extract, yeast extract to make it rich in nutrients for the bacterium to grow. So agar-agar is solidifying. It gives us a jelly-like substance to work with so that on the surface we can draw the bacteria, put the bacteria and let it grow.
MCCAMMON: And what kinds of bacteria are you using in this process?
KHAMARI: We do have a connection with the hospitals here. So I - and my research work involves working with pathogenic bacteria isolated from human hosts. The bacteria which I commonly work with are Escherichia coli, which is a very common bacteria which happens to be there inside our intestines. And another one which I use very frequently is Staphylococcus aureus. That's also a bacterium which is very common in humans.
MCCAMMON: Is that, like, a Staph infection, that bacteria?
KHAMARI: Yes, Staphylococcus aureus also causes infection. Yes.
MCCAMMON: You're making art out of bacteria that grows in our intestines that's potentially very infectious. Is this dangerous?
KHAMARI: Yes. Unless - if you are working in the lab with proper protection and in the biosafety cabinets, it is always safe. Since I happen to be a microbiologist and I know how to handle bacteria, it is good. I can do it on my own without any danger to myself, but I wouldn't recommend anybody to try it at home or anywhere where there is not much protection.
MCCAMMON: And what kinds of, like, colors and shapes are possible with this technique?
KHAMARI: Yeah, it depends on what kind of microbes you can use and you are allowed to use. For example, in my lab, we work on living bacteria. So with bacteria, you may not get so much of depth as such, but when they use fungi for the work, you can get that, and you can get 3D structures also.
MCCAMMON: You know, I think there's this idea that art and science are sort of opposites or even opposed. You know, people say something's a science but not an art. Do you see a tension there between art and science?
KHAMARI: I always think that they are interlinked. Even doing a science experiment requires art. Similarly, in art, I think we create very big structures here. Like, we make floors (ph), and we make huge structures and huge sets for dramas and movies also. There, I could make out that it takes science. It takes science to understand the working of the structures and to design the architecture of the structures. And even when you're doing very small art, I think it is - a little bit of scientific mind is required. So I always thought that these two go hand in hand. And science and art are not very separate subjects.
MCCAMMON: That's Balaram Khamari, doctoral student in microbiology and an agar artist. Thanks for speaking with us.
KHAMARI: Thank you. It is all my pleasure.
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