#FEMSmicroBlog: Bacterial art to bridge microbes and society


‘Bacterial art’ is a relatively new practice sitting at the intersection between microbiology sciences and the arts. Very popular ‘agar art’ contests helped this practice gain global visibility, but humans have unconsciously used bacteria as artistic tool since pre-historical times. The review “Bridging the gap with bacterial art” in FEMS Microbiology Letters gives an overview on the history of bacterial art, its current uses, and provides a protocol for safely developing bacterial art. Bacterial art can be an effective tool in science communication and education, as Maria Azevedo summarizes in this #FEMSmicroBlog post. #MicrobiologyInArt

In the words of American photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand: “The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he [sic] lives or a few feet away.” In a way, the microbiologist’s world is limitless, too: microorganisms can be found, physically, almost everywhere. Are there other intersections between the world of artists and that of microbiologists? Art created with microorganisms is certainly one.

Bacterial Art: Past and Present Trends 

The first known influence of bacteria in art (‘bacterial art’) is dated around  46,000-70,000 years ago in the so-called Gwion Gwion paintings (located in western Australia), where microorganisms have contributed to pigmentation of this rock art. The first direct use of microbes in art was done by the indigenous people of Babine Lake (British Columbia) around 5,000 years ago, who created paintings containing the bacterium Leptothrix orchracea, a species oxidizing iron and creating rust colourations.

Since the late 19th century, natural scientists began cultivating microorganisms in the laboratory, and were able to control, observe, and manipulate the growth of bacteria. Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), who revolutionized modern medicine with the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, was one of the first to use bacteria as pigment, agar as canvas, and Petri dishes as frame, creating early examples of ‘agar art.’

Modern bacterial art. (A) Growth of E. coli as you would not usually see on a Petri dish (artist: David Kremers, 1992). (B) Bacteria expressing bioluminescent light (artist: Hunter Cole, 2010). (C) A dress stained with bacteria (artist: Anna Dumitriu, 2011). (D) A ‘universe’ created with bacteria (artists: Tal Danino and Vik Muniz, 2014). For details, see the review by Frankel et al. (2023).

At the turn of the 21st century, the modern discipline of BioArt started to emerge. Artists, scientists, and tinkerers working in this area started to explore the nature of patterns, pigments, and luminescence created by microorganisms in aesthetic and artistic experimentations. These creatives often explore ethical questions through the BioArts, where there are no easy answers but where, instead, multi-disciplinary collaborations can attract interest, raise awareness, and spur a discussion within the broad public. Currently, the BioArts, within which bacterial art is one sub-discipline, keep developing.


What does the future hold for bacterial art?

As microbiological science and technology progress, there are many ways in which bacterial art might evolve, which are of course difficult to predict. The authors of the review “Bridging the gap with bacterial art” in FEMS Microbiology Letters argue that there are still obstacles to overcome for a full fruition of this discipline.

One of the major limitations of bacterial art reaching its full potential is the lack of support and acknowledgement by society and industry.”—the authors of the review “Bridging the gap with bacterial art” in FEMS Microbiology Letters

One obstacle is the lack of institutional support and funding opportunities for the establishment of BioArt as a formal discipline. A second one is related to the lack of access by bioartists to modern laboratories, where bacterial art can be produced safely. A third one is the need to increase the engagement of the general public, so that bacterial art can become an educational and engagement tool. The authors argue that it is crucial to overcome these gaps to keep exploring the potential of bacterial art.


How to create bacterial art

The practice of bacterial art (and of the BioArts in general) is open to everyone and welcomes the participation of citizens. Obviously, using bacteria as pigment and agar as canvas requires different technical skills than using a brush and ‘regular’ paints and colours. Avoiding unintended biohazard is also a consideration which bioartists need to be aware of.

A possible protocol for creating bacterial art as suggested by Frankel et al. (2023) (full details in the paper).

There are several protocols (where various levels of expertise and equipment are needed) which can be found online. A tutorial on how to create agar art is available on the YouTube video “How to Create Agar Art with Living Microbes.” The authors of the review presented in this blog post suggest a protocol to safely create bacterial art. After some important safety considerations and with enough practical training (which, by the way, is crucial to create any piece of art), the fun is guaranteed. A societal impact, which is always more difficult to determine, might follow. If anything, through bacterial art, people might become less afraid of bacteria and more aware of their potential.


About the author

Maria João Azevedo graduated in Dental Medicine at the Faculty of Dental Medicine of the University of Porto (Portugal) in 2018. Currently, she is a PhD student at the Academic Center for Dentistry Amsterdam at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Netherlands). Her work focuses mostly on oral and gut microbiome in infancy and in cardiovascular disease.


About this blog section

The section #MicrobiologyInArt will present examples of microbiology in literature, cinema, comic books, songs, graphic art, modern/contemporary art, video(games), photography, dance, and others. A particular focus is on what could people learn from those examples, or how they can raise awareness on microbiology topics, issues, and potentials.

Back to top

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this news