Beauty Meets Bacteria

Students create living artwork with single-cell organisms

Some artists wear smocks and dabble in oils or watercolors. Others don lab coats and gloves, and “paint” with a living palette of vivid bacteria.

Suffolk students Lily Johnsky and Domenic Abbondanza invited senior scientist Mehmet Berkmen and mixed media artist Maria Peñil Cobo of New England Biolabs recently to speak about their innovative work with bacterial art, including how -- and why -- they blend science and art to create living masterpieces.

“Bacteria are all around us, but many people think of them only in terms of rotting or disease,” says Berkmen. That misconception leads people to ignore the largely positive part the organisms play, from their key role in the planet’s ecology to each person’s own microbiome where bacteria make processes like digestion possible. Berkmen hopes to “replace disgust with knowledge through art.”

After learning about the evolution of this unique art form, students got to work on their own petri dish paintings in a lab in the 20 Somerset building:

Scientist giving a powerpoint presentation
New England Biolabs senior scientist Mehmet Berkmen explains the overlap of art and science that led to his collaboration with Peñil Cobo. Berkmen aims to create more “respect and awe” for the bacteria that surround -- and inhabit -- everyone on the planet by using the single-celled organisms in innovative artistic projects.
Artist in the lab discussing process with students in lab attire
Maria Peñil Cobo, a mixed media artist who creates miniature masterpieces using living bacteria at New England Biolabs, shared tips and techniques with Suffolk students.
Expert artwork shows detail and color
A sample of Peñil Cobo’s bacterial artwork. Her award-winning pieces are on display at New England Biolabs, hang in galleries, and have graced the covers of scientific journals.
Artist pipetting a petri dish with colorful bacteria
Peñil Cobo “paints” by pipetting dilutions of various strains of living bacteria onto her petri dish “canvas.” Her work will change over time as the colonies grow.
Various strains of bacteria in vivid colors
An artist’s palette of colorful bacteria.
Student and professor in a lab creating bacteria art

Instructor Atosa Ahmadi and biology and chemistry major Anna Athansopoulos, Class of 2020, create their own bacterial artwork.

Student swabs orange bacteria from a plate onto a tool to use in their artwork
A student uses an inoculating loop to gather vibrant red bacteria for use in a design.
Student concentrates on his applying a detail of his artwork onto a petri dish
Biology major Amir Doust, Class of 2020, concentrates on a detail of his work.
Student draws on a petri dish with colorful bacteria
A student uses an inoculating loop to sketch fine details into the agar and guide the path of growing bacteria. Berkmen likens the process to “drawing with invisible ink” since it takes a few days for the results to appear.
Student makes a sketch on paper
A plan is essential for designing living artwork. Each color of the final piece will be created by a different strain of bacteria. Each element must be given space to grow.
Student sketches on paper and then on her petri dish
Biology major Cilene Uriza Da Silva prepares to bring her drawing to life -- literally.
Completed bacteria art shows wheat plants on one and a tree on the other
Finished artwork after one week of growth (Da Silva's piece is on the left).
Completed bacteria art shows a fish on one plate and "Suffolk University" on the other
From under the sea to the Suffolk campus: bacteria art after one week of growth.


Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs