A cultural triumph: Microbiology student makes a petri dish masterpiece

Microbial Peacock by Balaram Khamari
Microbial Peacock by Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari

Balaram Khamari is a doctoral student in microbiology who has always felt the connection between science and art.

"They are interlinked," he says. "Even doing a science experiment requires art."

Now, Khamari is bringing the worlds of art and science together – in a petri dish. He's been spending a lot of time in his lab in Puttaparthi, India, culturing colorful bacteria and artfully arranging it on a jelly-like substance called agar. He is part of a growing body of scientists across the world who make agar art, and even compete for prizes.

Khamari recently won an award from the American Society for Microbiology for his work, Microbial Peacock. It shows a peacock — the national bird of India — surrounded by intricate feathers. The peacock's body is made from Escherichia coli and the tail feathers are composed of both Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. The eye of the bird is made of a gut bacterium called Enterococcus faecalis.

Intricate Geometric Symmetry by Balaram Khamari
Intricate Geometric Symmetry by Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari

Khamari is well trained in handling these pathogenic materials — rather than running down to the closest art supply store, he gets the bacteria from local hospitals where they have been isolated from human hosts — and he doesn't suggest you try this at home. "I happen to be a microbiologist and I know how to handle bacteria ..." he says. "I can do it on my own without any danger to myself, but I wouldn't recommend anybody to try it at home or anywhere where there is not much protection."

He says that while the connection between large scale artworks and science may be more apparent, for him the two disciplines have always gone "hand in hand."

"Even when you are doing very small art, I think a little bit of scientific mind is required ..." he says. "Science and art are not really separate subjects."

Unity of Faith by Balaram Khamari
Unity of Faith by Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari

Andrew Craig and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

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