Pellissippi State microbiology students create intricate art using bacteria

Art in Petri dishes
Pellissippi State microbiology students created these and other designs using bacteria in the Strawberry Plains Campus lab.

Microbiology students on Pellissippi State’s Strawberry Plains and Magnolia Avenue campuses have used the techniques they’ve learned in lab this semester to create agar art, also known as microbial art.

You can see this agar art displayed on the Strawberry Plains Campus, in a hall on the main level of the building.

Agar art is an active learning tool that presents the microbial community in an interesting way, explained microbiology instructor Zainab Ahmed, who is a microbiologist and virologist.

Students created artwork using agar – a gel-like substance used to grow bacteria in Petri dishes – as a canvas and bacteria as the paint. The kind of agar and bacteria used determines the color of the artwork students produced.

“The pigments are colorful evidence of bacteria’s morphology in their real habitat,” Ahmed noted. “This illustrates the beauty of these microorganisms in nature.”

The agar art was created solely on the Strawberry Plains Campus this semester, offered as extra credit in lab time outside of class. Microbiology students on any of Pellissippi State’s campuses were welcome to participate.

“Students all like it,” Ahmed said. “Some have asked to come back and participate again the next semester we offer it, and I have met with a high school biology teacher in Blount County who would like for us to promote Agar art for high school students in the future.”

This was the third time Ahmed has offered her microbiology students the opportunity to create agar art, but it’s the first time Strawberry Plains Campus Dean Mike North has invited Ahmed to display the students’ artwork on campus.

“I thought it was the coolest thing that was done with the outcome of the Agar art,” North said. “I love filling up the campus with art, and when it’s contributions from students, that’s even better. I want to support them. It’s educational, and it looks really really cool.”

Photos of the Petri dishes show everything from Christmas trees to a lizard to a map of North and South America – all formed by bacteria grown in the Strawberry Plains Campus microbiology lab.

“Students had the option of what they wanted to draw – they could use a stencil or choose something from the internet and draw it freehand,” Ahmed explained. “We have heard from other instructors and students that they like this agar art.”

Ahmed and microbiology technician Katherine Fullerton prepared the agar and cultured the bacteria, but students took it from there.

The bacteria students could choose to use produced pigments of red, blue, orange and green. While red, blue and orange pigments occur naturally in bacteria, some bacteria that appear white or tan on other agar present as green when grown on a different kind of agar.

Students also could choose how to transfer the bacteria to their Petri dishes – using a wire loop that had to be fired in a Bunsen burner, a toothpick or a fine paintbrush.

“This is a good opportunity for our microbiology students to use all the different tools in the lab and to feel free to experiment,” Ahmed said. “They get to use all the knowledge they’ve learned earlier in the semester, from lab safety to how to incubate the bacteria, and they get to see chemical reactions and how colonies of bacteria can change color.”

Ahmed’s agar art project was supported this semester by a grant from Pellissippi State’s Instructional Development Committee, which allowed Ahmed to purchase more agar and new bacteria. The grant will cover another semester of agar art, but Ahmed said she may wait until fall 2020 to offer the opportunity again, as it would give microbiology students a chance to enter their agar art into an international competition sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

For more information about Pellissippi State, visit www.pstcc.edu or call 865.694.6400.

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