The life and work of scientists and artists might at first seem complete polar opposites, but they're more intertwined than you might think. So much of art is inspired by the natural world around us, and so much of our desire for scientific understanding is rooted in the beauty and wonder of the universe.
To acknowledge this aesthetic connection, the American Society for Microbiology hosts the annual Agar Art Contest, which invites participants to create colorful works of art "using microbes as the paint and agar as the canvas." Agar is a jelly-like substance derived from algae that is most often used in culinary and laboratory settings. This year, the competition attracted 85 submissions and winners were announced on Sept. 29.
While "Cell to Cell" (above) was chosen by popular vote via Facebook, the other award-winning images (below) were decided by a panel of judges who evaluated each piece's creative, artistic merit as well the scientific accuracy of its accompanying caption.
1st place: "Neurons"
Scientist Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs teamed up with artist Maria Penil to create "Neurons," which nabbed the contest's top spot for its intricately detailed representation of nerve cells.
"Neurons and biological shapes is a common theme in the works of the artist Maria Penil," Berkman writes. "Here she painted with yellow Nesterenkonia, orange Deinococcus and Sphingomonas isolated for their attractive colors as contaminants in the Berkmen lab."
The intricate bacterial patterns were grown over the course of two days at 30 degrees Celsius, and then left to sit out in room temperature for a few days before sealing them in epoxy to preserve their appearance forever.
2nd place: "NYC Biome Map"
Science educator Christine Marizzi submitted this stunning agar art installation, which was a collaboration between citizen scientists and artists at Genspace, a community biolab in New York City.
"We invited the public to learn about microbes by creating a city map using harmless E. coli K12 bacteria engineered with colorful fluorescent proteins like GFP, RFP or YFP as paint," Marizzi explains. "More than 50 participants applied bacterial suspension cultures onto square petri plates [...] The plates were prepared with stencils of NYC's street grid, allowing participants to paint the bacteria into the patterns."
After letting the dishes incubate for a short time, the participants were invited back to the lab to make paper prints of their homegrown colonies. These prints were then put together as a map of New York City, "blending the individual prints into a collective artwork and creating an everlasting microbial map of NYC."
3rd Place: "Harvest Season"
The scientist behind this Van Gogh-esque vignette is Maria Eugenia Indua, a post-doctoral researcher from Argentina who was inspired by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast that has been used for many centuries as an active agent in the production of bread, wine, beer and more.
With agar as her canvas and yeast as her paint, Inda honored this important history by drawing a humble farmhouse surrounded by fields of wheat.
"The organism used for this piece of art [was] metabolically engineered on the b-carotene pathway, resulting in a color palette of colonies of our choice, from yellow to red," Inda writes.
Continue below to see a few more outstanding entries from the 2015 Agar Art Contest, and visit the American Society for Microbiology on Facebook to learn more about this offbeat competition.