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Microbiology Student Association paints with microbes

Agar+art+from+a+microbe+painting+event+displayed+in+petri+dishes+Oct.+10.
Collegian | Hana Pavelko
Agar art from a microbe painting event displayed in petri dishes Oct. 10.

The Colorado State University Microbiology Student Association hosted a painting with microbes event Oct. 10. With an abundance of pigmented bacteria, students created unique designs on petri dishes to showcase at the Festival on the Oval for Homecoming weekend.

Microbes are small living creatures that we cannot see without microscopes. We are mostly familiar with them in terms of germs and viruses. Microbes can grow on a substance called agar, which is similar to nutrient-rich Jell-O. By allowing microbes to grow on agar, they can be seen without microscopes over time.

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Microbiologists, the scientists who study microscopic organisms, use tools called inoculating loops and needles to transfer microbes to different surfaces. In order to get accurate results, these tools must be sterilized before they are used to help prevent contamination. 

Students equipped with paint pallets of microbes, inoculating loop “paintbrushes” and petri dishes filled with agar set out to make their works of art. The designs ranged from the iconic CSU “A” to a dog named Goose floating in space. But how do you paint with a living organism?

“It’s a lot of faith,” said Elizabeth Ninke, the president of MSA. “You can’t really see, so it’s just faith it’ll grow.”

Microbes are too small to see with the naked human eye, so trying to paint with them is similar to painting with invisible ink. The biggest tip for painting with these microbes is to know the bacteria you’re working with. Microbes have unique characteristics that set them apart from others. Sometimes putting bacteria with different characteristics on the same petri dish can end in disaster.

“It’s harder than you think,” said Jess Gray, a member of MSA. “It’s a lot of trial and error to find out what works for me and what doesn’t.”

The “paints” used during the event found their origins close to home. The microbes in the shades orange, yellow, blue and purple all come from CSU alumni who teach at the university. While most of these microbes came from Traci Kinkel’s introduction to research methods course, the blue microbe — a new addition this year — came from Carolina Mehaffy’s foundations of modern biotechnology class. The colors in the microbes are not only eye-catching but functional as well. 

“(Pigments) can help them be protected against UV rays,” Mehaffy said. “Others can inhibit other bacteria, so they can help them survive and compete with other microbes. Another function of pigments is acting as antioxidants.”

The final products were displayed at the Festival on the Oval during Homecoming weekend. Attendees were able to look at the art and learn more about microbes. Microbiology students and faculty got the opportunity to explain to those who visited their table about the science behind their artwork as well as share their passion for the subject with the rest of the community. 

In addition to showing off their work at the Festival on the Oval, the MSA is hoping to submit some of their artwork to the annual Agar Art Contest hosted by the American Society for Microbiology. Every year, people from across the country create their own artwork from microbes and agar to submit to this contest. This year’s theme for the contest is Microbiology in Space, and the grand prize is a chance to be a special guest and presenter at MilliporeSigma’s Agar Art on Display event in Molsheim, France.

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Reach Hana Pavelko at science@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian

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