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Tragic Love Stories: Agar Art 2023

Students from across campus gathered at the annual Agar Art Competition to paint “Tragic Love Stories” with harmless strains of E. coli. Scientists, artist, and curious enthusiasts trustingly layered their Petri dish canvas with six color options of the clear, genetically modified bacteria created in the agar lab.

The magic happened overnight when the Petri dishes were moved to an incubator. While the bacteria feasted on the stiff agar base (a jelly-like substance found in algae), the vibrant colors of the genetically altered organisms came to life. Some E. Coli strains even glow in the dark, making stunning masterpieces.

“It was really interesting to work with such an unfamiliar medium…I’ve never painted with something I can’t see, so this was quite the challenge,” said Rebecca Ellingson, second-place winner. “Even still, it was a ton of fun, and I look forward to doing it again next year.”

The competition brought in 119 students, a considerable jump from last year’s 34 competitors. Winners were chosen based on creativity, skill, and effort. Nancy Morrill, Microbiology and Molecular Biology academic program coordinator, said that she’s excited by the momentum and hopes to increase the number of competitors each year.

“The agar art competition was a fun opportunity to prove that we can also incorporate art into our field,” said Jeonga Gu, first-place winner of the competition.

Jeonga Gu took first place with her depiction of Romeo and Juliet.

A petri dish of spongy, clear agar depicts an image of Juliet weeping over Romeo
"Romeo and Juliet" by Jeonga Gu
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Rebecca Ellingson claimed second place with her piece, “George Padley & Sarah Franks.”

A petri dish of clear agar depicts a barren tree set upon a hill, as a woman is gazing at the tree
"George Padley & Sarah Franks" by Rebecca Ellingson
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Third place went to Madison Anderson, for her piece, “3:16.”

“When I heard the theme for the contest was tragic love stories, I immediately thought of God and our Savior Jesus Christ in John 3:16,” Anderson said. “This verse tells us that God loves us so much that He was willing to sacrifice His begotten son – which was a tragic experience for both God and Jesus Christ.”

A petri dish of clear agar depicts a cross made of nails with the quote "For God so loved the world" written across the top and a vine of pink roses along the bottom
"3:16" by Madison Anderson
Photo by Nicholas Rex

10 other competitors were given honorable mentions. Photos of the pieces can be found at the MMBIO website.