SCIENCE

This Artist Paints With Bacteria, And It's Strangely Beautiful

A petri dish is her canvas, and the microbes are her paint.

04/04/2016 11:31 PM AEST | Updated 04/04/2016 11:31 PM AEST
Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
Peñil's piece "Cell to Cell," which won the People's Choice award in the 2015 ASM Agar Art contest.

You've never seen bacteria quite like this before.

Mixed media artist Maria Peñil Cobo, who was born in Spain and currently resides in Massachusetts, told The Huffington Post on Thursday that she has often turned to nature as inspiration for her artwork. But instead of looking to vast oceans or forest landscapes, it's the much smaller ecosystems that fascinate her the most.

Peñil has spent the past five years growing colorful bacteria, with help from microbiologist Dr. Mehmet Berkmen, and then "painting" the microbes into stunning masterpieces.

Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
Peñil's "Neurons," which won first place in the 2015 ASM Agar Art contest.

"It is very technically difficult," Berkmen, a staff scientist at the Ipswich, Massachusetts-based company New England Biolabs, told HuffPost. "You have to imagine that these bacteria we're using are all different species. ... Each one grows differently and eats differently. Some don't become colorful immediately, while others become old and then get their color."

Berkmen taught Peñil how to "paint" with bacteria on agar, a gelatinous substance in which jungles of bacteria can grow. The artist uses a petri dish as her canvas.

Check out this video to watch Peñil painting. Story continues below. 

Now, watch as the bacteria grow below.

So far, Peñil has attempted to "paint" with bacteria found on her own lips -- which she collected after kissing a petri dish -- as well as the germs that grew when she put her own house key on the dish.

Peñil, who will be giving a TED Talk about her work in Chicago on April 9, said that she hopes her artwork will shift the public dialogue around bacteria from one of fear and disgust to one of appreciation and curiosity.

After all, bacteria are a normal part of human life -- they live all around us and even inside of our own bodies.

"I'm a scientist, and I appreciate this project a lot," Berkmen said. "When we do science, there is always an element of art, and while Maria is doing pure art, there is an element of science in what we are observing. We are observing scientific phenomena."

Scroll down to see more of Peñil's bacteria artwork below.

  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen
  • Maria Peñil Cobo/Mehmet Berkmen

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