Celebrating Julius Richard Petri: A Man, A Dish, A Google Doodle

Bacteria grown from belly buttons. Images courtesy of Belly Button Diversity

Julius Richard Petri is a name you might not recognize at first glance. But think back to your high school biology lab—his last name probably sounds more familiar. Petri’s invention—a shallow dish used to grow and identify bacterial strains—revolutionized the world of microbiology and the way we culture microorganisms.

Today Petri is being honored on what would have been his 161st birthday with a Google Doodle. The animated Doodle shows half a dozen petri dishes; if you play the video, bacteria grows into the letters “G-o-o-g-l-e.”

Petri was born in 1852 in Barmen, Germany. He studied medicine at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Academy for Military Physicians in Berlin. And he later worked with Robert Koch—the father of modern bacteriology—at the Imperial Health Office, also in Berlin.

In Koch’s lab, cultures were grown in glass tubes filled with a growth medium called agar. But the depth of the tubes made it difficult to see different strains of bacteria. Petri’s decision to place bacterial cultures in shallow dishes made it much easier for microbiologists to grow and then identify different strains of bacteria.

In celebration of Petri’s birthday, we’re dishing (haha!) up some fun facts about the shallow dish he invented.

It can show what’s inside your belly button: In 2012, researchers at North Carolina State University asked their colleagues to swab their belly buttons for a “citizens science experiment.” (Related: “What Lives in Your Belly Button?”)

The researchers then examined the “thriving ecosystems” which grew inside petri dishes in their lab. From 60 belly buttons emerged more than 2,368 bacterial species, 1,458 of which may be entirely new to science. (Also see “Armpits Are ‘Rain Forests’ for Bacteria, Skin Map Shows.”)

It can make a party more fun: You can use a petri dish as a vessel for Jello treats. Just pour the Jello mixture into a petri dish and then put them in your fridge. An hour later, you’ll have fun party treats that will make you look like the maddest scientist on the block.

It can be used to make amazing art: San Francisco-based artist Klari Reis’ medium is the petri dish: she’s created hundreds of hand-painted plexiglass petri dishes which depict cellular reactions.

Microbiologist-turned-artist Zachary Copfer also uses the petri dish — but as a way to print photographs. Copfer controls the bacteria in order to grow the images he creates. For example, here’s Einstein in a petri dish:

It might grow meat one day: Researchers at the University of Masstricht in the Netherlands are working on a way to grow a hamburger in a petri dish using stem cells harvested from other animal material. The stem cells are then grown using a mixture of nutrients into muscle-like strips. If enough of these strips are layered—along with some fat—you have what amounts to a petri burger. Yum.

It might be used to regenerate organs: In the future, people who need a limb or an ear might be able to get one by harvesting their own cells and growing them in a petri dish. (Read about organ regeneration in National Geographic magazine.)

“It’s like baking a layer cake,” a researcher told National Geographic magazine in 2011. “You’re layering the cells one layer at a time, spreading these toppings.”

Do you know of any other innovative uses for the petri dish? Let us know in the comments!

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Melody Kramer writes and edits pieces for both National Geographic's magazine and website. She tweets @mkramer.