A Petri Dish is Worth 1000 Words: The Lasting Impact of ASM’s Agar Art Contest

April 10, 2019

Last week, EIROforum published its spring 2019 issue of Science in Schools, a magazine distributed to science teachers across the European Union.
"Finding Pneumo: starring Klebsiella pneumoniae," Andrew Simor, Linh Ngo, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, Canada.
Source: ASM Agar Art Contest 2017
 “Painting in a petri dish” by Aida Duarte and Ana Margarida Madureira featured an image familiar to anyone who follows ASM’s Agar Art contest – “Finding Pneumo: starring Klebsiella pneumoniae," by Andrew Simor and Linh Ngo of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto (see right). The image, created with Serratia marcescens, Staphylococcus aureus and K. pneumoniae on CLED (cysteine-, lactose- and electrolyte-deficient) agar, won 2nd place in the 2017 contest. Its use to illustrate this article is the latest example of how Agar Art pieces persist beyond the contest itself. 

"Vincent van Gogh's 'The Starry Night,' Melanie Sullivan, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, United States.
Source: ASM Agar Art Contest 2015

When ASM launched the Agar Art contest in 2015, the society was surprised not only by the creativity and artistic skill of those who entered the contest, but also by the public interest in the images. The original contest was covered by more than 200 media outlets from around the world and some of the images, such as Melanie Sullivan’s recreation of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” (above) have become representative of the bacterial art genre. 

The enduring appeal of these images has been another pleasant surprise. Similar contests have sprung up in places like Nepal and Bulgaria. ASM regularly receives requests to have Agar Art appear in magazines, museum exhibits, even art curricula. With each request, the message that the microbial world is beautiful and diverse radiates further into the world. 
With the 2019 contest opening in September, we hope the next crop of submissions will inspire editors, photo researchers and others looking for beautiful scientific imagery long after the contest itself concludes.  Leave a link to your favorite Agar Art piece in the comment section below!
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Author: Katherine Lontok

Katherine Lontok
Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016. At ASM, she works to bring the microbial sciences to adult and youth audiences, as well as enable ASM members to effectively engage in their own public outreach.