BYU students paint with bacteria for the Agar Art Competition

Megan Biesinger paints lungs covered in flowers on her agar plate for the art competition. She uses a drawing on paper towels underneath the plate to trace the image in translucent bacteria paint. (Lauren Hemmert)

The BYU microbiology and molecular biology program held its semi-annual Agar Art competition on Oct. 14 where students produced paintings made of bacteria.

The Agar Art competition is an event for students to enjoy art while learning about science. Students from majors across campus participated in this unique art competition where transparent paint is made from bacteria that grows colorful over time.

Participants used a harmless strain of E. coli bacteria to paint on a petri dish filled with a jelly-like substance called agar. The paint consisted of bacteria with a pigment inserted into it that cause color. The bacteria, however, was transparent when students painted with it.

Once all the paintings were finished, the plates were put in an incubator that kept the petri dishes at body temperature. Overnight, the bacteria fed on the agar which acted as a food source for the bacteria to grow and become colorful.

There were six color options for students to paint with, plus a glow-in-the-dark paint that can only be seen in a dark room. The glow-in-the-dark paint was created by inserting a gene called green fluorescent protein. It is the same gene that is found in fireflies.

Three judges, taken from the administration of the microbiology and molecular biology (MMBIO) program, will decide the winners, and prizes will be given to the top three paintings and 10 Honorable Mentions. The winners will be posted on the MMBIO’s facebook page. Pictures from this competition and past competitions can be found there as well.

The Microbiology and Molecular Biology Club (MMBIO Club) helps host this event each semester. They invite the Art Beat Club to participate so both science and art majors can be represented.

MMBIO department lab administrator Robert Black brought this competition to BYU. After seeing agar art at a national microbiology conference, Black thought BYU would find success with a similar event. The first Agar Art competition at BYU was three years ago, and “it was instantly a hit,” he said.

Winter Semester 2020 the Agar Art competition had a theme of The Restoration of the Church. Hope is the theme for this semester’s competition because Black said it is important to keep hope alive during the pandemic.

MMBIO Club president Austen Gleave said it is “good for students during a pandemic to get out of the house and do something artistically and emotionally relieving.”

Gleave helped run the event and painted his own plate for the competition. As a microbiology major, he said it is fascinating to see the colors and growth of the bacteria. “It’s fun to play with bacteria since so often we think it’s going to kill us,” he said.

Genetics, genomics and biotechnology senior Megan Biesinger participated last winter where she won an honorable mention for her Kirtland Temple agar painting.

Biesinger said she has always had a passion for science and art so this event is “one of those few moments I actually get to combine something I really love with something I want to go into.”

Through her painting of lungs covered in flowers, Biesinger wanted to highlight hope and beauty even while the world is struggling with so many respiratory problems.

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