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Petri Dish Picasso

Petri Dish Picasso

Art Meets Science

Scientific artists or artistic scientists?

Petri-Picasso a collaborative effort of amazing scientists!

Petri Dish Picasso is a team effort (with over 20 student volunteers at any given time!) Courtney Toth answered the following questions. 

Instagram: @petridishpicasso

1) Team Petri-Picasso, are you artists first and scientists second, or scientists first and artists second?

The team behind Petri Dish Picasso are budding scientists, comprised primarily of undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. Our goal is to use PDP as a science outreach tool and promote public awareness of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. What makes us unique is that we use art as a vehicle for science communication, which we've found has helped to make STEM learning more engaging and approachable to the general public. It's pretty amazing that we can tell a story through a modest Petri dish! We're also very fortunate to have a handful of researchers that are also talented artists, including Natalie Gugala, Janine McCalder, Angel Nong, Julie Paulssen, Dr. Natalie Rachel, Caroline Saores, and Danika Stoesz.


2) What led you to pick science as your primary theme?

Two of my colleagues, Dr. Sean Booth and Iain George, first conceived PDP in 2013 as a response to growing misconceptions about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Many people are unaware that our modern day society is heavily reliant on GMOs; whether they're being used for antibiotics and drugs production, research applications, biotechnology development and more, the benefits and applications of GMOs go far beyond food products. Sean and Iain wanted to create a hands-on, visual exhibit showcasing GMOs, and thought to do so by using GMOs as unconventional paints. To accomplish this, they took a laboratory strain of E. coli and transformed it to express Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), a gene that encodes for proteins that fluoresce under black light. The gene is not native to E. coli, but rather is derived from a jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) - this is what makes it a GMO. They went one step further and genetically modified GFP to express proteins emitting different wavelengths of light (colours), creating a palette of glow-in-the dark bacteria. The bacteria is not changed in any other way, and expressing GFP does not affect its growth or life cycle. Scientists use the same techniques to create GMOs for research/industrial purposes, but we use ours to create BioArt, or agar art as it is more commonly known.


3) Do you have goals with what you do like educate, inspire, stimulate curiosity, or do you do it for yourself?

PDP has a passion for science education, and we are continuously expanding our outreach potential in our community. We organize year-round events where participants of all can paint their own glow-in-the-dark Petri dish. Kids especially get a kick out of painting with bacteria, and it's pretty astounding how much they already know about microbiology beforehand! It's also incredibly rewarding to help get people talking about STEM and inspire the next generation of STEM enthusiasts. In all, we've had the public paint over 5,000 Petri dishes, and engaged tens of thousands more through social media.


4) What aspect of science do you focus on?

When we first started painting BioArt (for social media), we sought to paint life-like images that didn't look like bacteria; a sort of 'shock and-awe' factor. For example, I've painted a number of realistic portraits including John Lennon, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the Girl with the Pearl Earring. They're beautiful pieces, but they don't really tell a story about STEM. Now we're working towards painting Petri dishes that teach a simple aspect of microbiology or related subject, as well as highlight  different strains of bacteria and their significance. It doesn't have to be about GMOs either; we've talked about pathogens, pharmaceutical-producing bacteria, and antibiotic resistance, just to name a few. The response to this new approach has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has led to a handful of collaborations with local research laboratories and showcase their science, too. A huge win for us and for science communication!


5)  What kind of media do you prefer? 

Painting with bacteria is more challenging than it seems at first glance. It's a lot like working with invisible ink since the bacteria are microscopic; we have to incubate the Petri dishes for 24 - 72 hours before we can see any growth. A single bacterial colony can have tens of millions individual cells, and colonies can come in many different shapes and sizes. We tend to pick strains that form small colonies so we can control what it is we're painting. The standard tool for painting with bacteria is an inoculation loop, which has a small ring at the end of a metal wire. The loop can pick up several hundred cells at a time suspended in a water droplet, and is great for painting large sections of a Petri dish. For finer details, I prefer to paint with a stab (a loop-free wire) or even with a pipette tip! Another important thing to consider is the type of growth medium used in our Petri dishes. Most are made with standard Lysogeny broth (LB) agar, which is sort of an all-purpose medium for growing common laboratory strains. It contains water, a gelling agent (agar), a nutrient source (yeast extract), proteins (peptone) and salt (for osmotic balance). Some bacterial colonies are naturally pigmented, and LB agar is a great choice for showcasing these types of strains, as it is fairly transparent in appearance. Genetic engineering can also be used to make colourful artwork, such as our GFP-expressing E. coli, or we can add pigmented chemicals to the growth medium that react to the bacteria causing a colour change.


6) Tell me about your favorite piece.

Funny enough, I have very few photos of me featuring my BioArt - I suppose I'm a little camera shy. I do have a photo of me painting a giant (4' x 4') Petri dish courtesy of Iain George. Natalie and I made this piece for Beakerhead 2017, an annual festival in Calgary, AB showcasing advances in arts, science and engineering. It took about 5 hours to paint the whole plate using our GFP-expressing E. coli, and depicted an image of epithelial (skin) cells as they would look under a microscope. Iain made an excellent stop-motion video of its growth over a 72 hour period (video attached).

There are so many exceptional pieces of BioArt that it's hard to choose a favourite. So I'll let you choose instead! Each image includes a mini description of the microbe in its caption;


7) Do you sale your art?

No, we do not produce any art for sale. It's certainly crossed my mind, but it would be a health and safety nightmare trying to ship/sell live organisms (even if they were encapsulated in resin), and we couldn't guarantee their lifespan for more than a few weeks. Eventually, they will run out of nutrients and die. A better approach might be to sell prints of our BioArt; I also think they would make some quirky drink coasters. Perhaps if there was a market out there for our BioArt that would support the operating costs for PDP, then we might consider it.


8) Where are you all from?

As a graduate student, I was the lead artist and an executive manager for PDP, volunteering for the group for 5 years. Recently I moved to Toronto to start a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Toronto, but PDP is still being operated through the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary (in the capable hands of my colleague, Natalie Gugala). I'm eager to open a new PDP branch here at the UofT, and to bring a little culture to the big T.O. I've started a call for new volunteers and funding sources, and hope to get back to bacterial painting soon.


Courtney Toth, PhD: Postdoctoral Fellow - BioZone

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