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Using Microbe Art to Engage with Science

One December day in 2017, I came across a picture of a Christmas tree. This wasn’t your average festive fir, though – it was drawn using multicolored bacteria strains: green evergreen boughs, red garland, a yellow star topper, and a dark trunk. I thought it was the perfect marriage of science and art, a living and vibrant experiment.  

Yeast “drawn” on an agar plate. Their color
variation from white to pinkish-red can be seen.

 

As a graduate student using the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae in my research, better known as the yeast used in bread and beer, I immediately wanted to figure out how I could turn my favorite microbe into a colorful painting. One problem: yeast are typically white or very pale red and will view any introduced pigment, such as food coloring, as an unfamiliar chemical and basically spit it out. Conversely, bacteria can be all the colors of the rainbow depending on the strain and the environment they grow in. How could I emulate the pigment range of bacterial strains? So began my experimentation with microbe art, where yeast are used as paint, left to grow on agar for a few days, and yield a living piece. [Side note: agar is the medium in the Petri dishes where microbes grow. Think of it as unflavored jello with lots of nutrients and sugar for fuel].

I have always been interested in both science and art. My grandmother gave me summer painting lessons for years and I spent hours outside searching for insects and amphibians with my brother growing up. I have used artistic pursuits as a stress reliever from difficult academic classes since high school and yeast art is no different. Additionally, this particular project allows me to combine science and art to express myself in a truly unique way. It’s a way I can present more of myself as a person instead of just as a scientist. Some of my friends have even introduced me as “This is Liz, she makes yeast art.”

Some yeast art (clockwise from top left): Happy New Year 2019,
red rose, glowing sun goddess, and poetic and noble land mermaid.

 

Scientists are often portrayed as non-creative individuals, but the opposite is true. It takes creativity and imagination to develop experiments and think outside the box to solve complex problems. For decades, scientists have been blending science and art, but only recently has it become a national education focus. Many people are familiar with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the term coined by Dr. Judith Ramaley in the early 2000s [1], but may not be as familiar with STEAM (STEM + the Arts), which emerged in the late 2000s. The creativity offered by artistic pursuits can be beneficial to innovation, which in turn helps U.S. competitiveness[2], and makes more empathetic students. Student achievement soars when STEAM education allows them to explore their creativity and create a personal connection to a subject in their own unique way.

This brings us back to yeast art.

2018 ASM Agar Art Contest 1st place winner:
"The battle of winter and spring," Ana Tsitsishvili,
Undergraduate Student, Agricultural University of Georgia,
Tbilisi, Georgia.
https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/Previous-Winners

I am far from the first to make microbial drawings. Alexander Flemming, who discovered penicillin, enjoyed searching for bacteria that offered new and unique pigments to make his own agar art[3]. This curiosity for the undiscovered helped him find penicillin and forever change the world. The annual agar art competition sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology started in 2015 to show the world how diverse and beautiful microbes can be [4]. Asking students to use microbes to “paint” on petri dish “canvases” allows them to learn about how these organisms grow in different environments and can be a powerful tool for teaching the scientific method where students test hypotheses until their desired artistic results are achieved, a true integrative STEAM approach.

 

While microbe art is visually striking, it is also a great conversation starter with non-scientists. I’ve used this art to show that there’s more to yeast than its role in bread and beer; it’s a critical model organism that has contributed to research breakthroughs for decades. Additionally, combining scientific and artistic pursuits makes science more accessible, opens up more avenues to engage with diverse audiences, and encourages collaboration between individuals with different backgrounds.

 

Some pandemic yeast art made at home (clockwise from top left: fall leaves, a community of Whos, Vote!, and a peaceful snowy night.

So what happened with my attempts at yeast art? I went through some failed iterations, but eventually developed a method where I could draw the outline of an image with yeast cells on agar using a wooden stick, let them grow for a few days until they were robustly visible on the plate, carefully place diluted food coloring inside the drawing area to make it vibrant, and immediately take a picture before the food coloring diffused through the agar. I made my creations in the lab while waiting for experiments to finish; they were a good outlet to relieve some of the stress from the repeated scientific failures and long hours of grad school, and also a fun new challenge to tackle. I’ve been able to continue making yeast art at home during the pandemic with commercially available Baker’s yeast and agar plates purchased online.

Some holiday yeast art (clockwise from top left): gingerbread person, menorah, Santa, and a cornucopia.

 

There are endless ways to creatively engage with science and share your passions with a broad audience – how will you blend science and the arts?

I’m Liz and I make yeast art.

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