BioArt in the Lab

“Applying biology in an artistic way really helps to connect worlds together that we otherwise try to compartmentalize”–Dr. Brittany F. Peterson

How can you make bacteria more approachable? Dr. Brittany F. Peterson in the Department of Biology sought out to do just that in her Microbiology course (Biology 350). Utilizing an assignment developed by Dr. Susanne DiSalvo entitled, “Art on a Plate,” Peterson illustrated the visual diversity of bacteria, inviting students to work first hand with various species by creating agar art.

“Some species of bacteria have the ability to produce pigment and excrete it. I cultured ten different species of bacteria that would produce an array of colors for students to use,” said Peterson.

Students were given tools to create their artwork–inoculating loops, probes, and toothpicks to serve as their “paintbrushes” and Petri dishes, with nutrient agar, to serve as their “canvases.” Students painted onto the agar using the “palette” of bacteria that Peterson grew.

“At this stage in the process, all students have is a transparent plate to trace onto. They do not know how it will turn out…in order for it to work, they really have to slow down and carefully plan,” commented Peterson. Her Teaching Assistant, Jacob Miller, helped students during the lab activity to plan their ideas out more logistically and technically.

“Art on a Plate” is more than an activity–it creates a connection with organisms that are otherwise invisible to students, encourages creative thinking in the lab, and helps to shift the negative view we often have of bacteria. Results visually demonstrate the diversity and beauty of the microbial world; below are some of the works that were created by Peterson’s students:

“I had a great response from my students. It became clear to me that they really needed an exercise that engaged more of their right-brain. Applying biology in an artistic way really helps to connect worlds together that we otherwise try to compartmentalize” (Peterson).

Dr. Brittany F. Peterson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her research interests lie in understanding symbiotic interactions and adaptive traits in host organisms.

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