The Hidden World of Bacteria-Based Art: Creating Masterpieces with Microorganisms

The Hidden World of Bacteria-Based Art: Creating Masterpieces with Microorganisms

In the intersection of science and art lies a fascinating and often overlooked realm: bacteria-based art. This unique form of artistic expression utilizes living microorganisms, predominantly bacteria, to create stunning visual masterpieces. This article delves into the techniques, history, and significance of bacteria-based art, highlighting its growing popularity and potential.

The Birth of Microbial Art

The concept of using bacteria as an artistic medium dates back to the early 20th century. Alexander Fleming, best known for discovering penicillin, is also credited with pioneering this art form. Fleming created “germ paintings” using different microbial species, gradually incorporating more colours as he discovered more microbes​​.

However, it was not until the 21st century that this form of art gained broader attention.

Techniques in Bacteria-Based Art

Agar Art: The Canvas

The primary canvas for bacteria-based art is agar, a gelatin-like substance brimming with nutrients. This medium serves not only as the surface for the artwork but also as food for the microorganisms, allowing them to grow and form patterns​​​​.

Choosing the Microbes

Artists can select microbes based on their natural colours or genetically modify them to express specific hues. This creates a palette similar to traditional painting but with living organisms. For example, the bacterium Serratia marcescens can produce a bright red colour, while the genetically modified yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae can turn into an elegant purple​​.


A technique called “bacteriography” involves selectively killing certain bacterial culture areas with radiation to produce artistic patterns. This method allows for more control and intricate designs in the artwork​​.

Incubation and Preservation

Once the bacteria are applied to the agar, the petri dishes are placed in incubators to promote growth. The final artwork is then preserved by sealing the culture with epoxy or acrylic​​​​.

The Art and the Artists

Microbial art is a time-consuming process that requires precision and patience. Balaram Khamari, a doctoral research scholar, is an example of an artist who combines his love for creative arts and science.

His works involve carefully arranging different bacteria to form patterns and images, such as a peacock made from various bacteria strains like E.coli and Staphylococcus aureus​​.

Frederik Hammes, a Swiss microbiologist, enhances his creations by adding powdered charcoal to the agar for a black background and even crafting 3-D agar art​​.

Peñil’s piece “Cell to Cell,” which won the People’s Choice award in the 2015 ASM Agar Art contest

The Agar Art Contest

Since 2015, the American Society for Microbiology has hosted the annual Agar Art Contest, encouraging scientists and artists to showcase their microbial masterpieces. The contest has become increasingly popular, with submissions from around the world showcasing the incredible potential of this unique art form​​.

Impact and Significance

Bacteria-based art not only showcases the beauty of microbiology but also serves as an educational tool, bringing awareness to the microscopic world. It’s a blend of science and art that challenges traditional boundaries and perceptions.

Examples of Bacteria-Based Art

1. “Seemingly Simple Elegance” is a Koi fish swimming on a lotus flower, using nine different organisms​​.

Seemingly Simple Elegance

2. “Fu(n)ji-san”: Representing a volcanic eruption in three dimensions, using microorganisms incubated on dyed agar​​.


3. “The Gardener”: A multi-plate creation by Joanne Dungo, awarded first place in the 2020 Agar Art Contest​​.

The Gardener

Bacteria-based art is a testament to the beauty and complexity of the microbial world. It’s an innovative fusion of biology and creativity, offering a unique perspective on both fields. As this art form continues to evolve, it holds the promise of stunning visual displays and deeper insights into the microscopic realm surrounding us.

Through understanding and appreciating bacteria-based art, we open ourselves to a world where science and art harmoniously intersect, revealing the unseen beauty of the microscopic world.