In an (Invisible) Galaxy (Not) so Far Away
The mirrored, twinkling hall of the exhibit The Secret World Inside You transports you to the fantastical world of your microbial self. This new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York educates young and old about the microbes that live in and on each of us and outnumber our human cells. What are these organisms? How do we get them? Where do they live? What do they do? How do they influence our health and behavior? Curator Susan Perkins, PhD kindly invited and toured me, another science mom friend (Robin Munro), and our oldest daughters (ages 7 and 8) through the exhibit. We were all astounded at the fantastic features and information in the exhibit. It was one of those rare exhibits that appeals to all ages.
The three years of planning by curators Susan Perkins, PhD and Rob DeSalle, PhD and AMNH staff are obvious in the attention to detail, scientific accuracy, and engaging content of The Secret World Inside You exhibit. The curators have developed the perfect exhibit to bring everyone together to this common table to learn about the quickly developing science of the human microbiome. When going to museums as a family, I frequently see kids who are bored and whine to leave or parents grimacing at the cartoony characters and looking at their phones. Admittedly, sometimes the whiny child is mine and I am the one grimacing at the “dumbed down” presentations. Not so with Secret World. We all were captivated. The exhibit is filled with signs to flip, things to touch, and great visuals at different heights drawing kids and adults side by side into the science of the microbiome. Side tunnels route you through how microbes are acquired at birth, how bacterial community composition changes with diet and exposure to other animals, human and non-human, and how bacteria influence your mood.
In the center of the exhibit, all ages – from grandparents to school aged kids – cluster around a table to learn about the microbial ecosystems of a projected human body. Visitors touch spinning circles on the virtual woman’s body sites to bring up images and text on the microbes that inhabit that region. Foot fungus, skin and digestive system bacteria, many microbial stories are told as the virtual woman turns her head to talk to her inquisitive visitors.
“No, Mom, Feed it Kale and Beans!”
People are perhaps most interested in learning about themselves – even their microbial selves. The Secret World Inside You teaches everyone at different stages of life about an invisible side of themselves that they may not know. The science of the microbiome is relatively new, putting many adults and kids on a level learning field. The exhibit’s videos feature several leaders in the field of human microbiome research providing new insight into how these invisible microbes influence our health and challenging Western ideas of hyper-cleanliness and overuse of antibiotics.
My favorite part was the pinball-style Build Your Biome games. The exhibit provided four pinball machines, so wait times were delightfully short. Everyone can take turns “feeding” the microbiome different foods. During one such game, Dr. Perkins overheard a mom suggesting her sons feed hamburgers to the person’s microbiome. “NO”, her young sons shouted, “Mom, it needs kale and beans!”. If the mom is anything like me, she used that information against them later! My daughter, Jac, is harassed reminded about feeding her good microbiome frequently, so that wasn’t new to her. When Jac played a round of Build Your Biome game, she was surprised to learn that there were different kinds of antibiotics. Broad spectrum, killing a wide variety of bacteria, versus narrow spectrum that kill a smaller subset of bacteria.
Microbiome Navel Gazing
My daughter loved the video game and interactive table, but most enjoyed the live, interactive presentation “Microbiome Lab” with its walls covered with images of multicolored petri dishes of belly button bacteria from the Belly Button Biodiversity project out of Dr. Rob Dunn’s lab at North Carolina State University. Here Alexandra, the Microbiome Lab technician, fascinated visitors with information on distinctions between belly button microbiomes of different ages and sexes of people and other microbiome information. As my friend remarked, “Who knew the microbiome of your navel could be so interesting?” and confessed to enjoying the satisfaction of pushing multicolored buttons to generate data in real time as participants responded to Alexandra’s questions.
In talking with Alexandra and Dr. Perkins before the live presentation, I was surprised that of all the potentially controversial information visitors were presented with, visitors most challenged the idea that people spend 90% of their time indoors. Indoors, includes any human-built structures from your home and office to the subway. This finding is important since the microbiome of our built structures and what microbes we can exchange with it differs dramatically from the microbiome of nature. Even as someone who does microbiome research and reads the expansive human microbiome literature, I picked up some new information during the exhibit and certainly learned about great science communication.
The exhibit tackles controversial findings of the human microbiome research, such as the effect of Cesarean birth and formula feeding on the developing microbiome, with ease. It makes a person think about their own journey thus far with their microbial partners and what we can do to nurture these communities now and in the future. Dr. Perkins mentioned a panicked phone call she received from a relative who stopped in the birth microbiome tunnel worrying that they were a C-section baby and had an unhealthy microbiome. “Yes, but you grew up with dogs”, she responded. That’s the thing with this exhibit. It makes each of us question the choices we and others have made and continue to make for our microbiome throughout our life.
The Secret World Inside of You
The Secret World Inside You also reminds us that the fascinating ecosystems of our own bodies are just beginning to be explored and understood. Does having dogs as indoor pets build a more natural microbiome in C-section infants? It remains to be seen, but we are seeing that individuals in families with dogs have more similar microbiomes than families without dogs. As with most ecosystems, the ecology is complex. We’re slowly identifying the organisms involved and what they do, much less how these complex invisible communities are built, modified, and destroyed. What we do know is that we are more microbial than human. AMNH’s The Secret World Inside You exhibit is an excellent way for all humans from pre-schoolers to their great-grandparents to learn more about their microbial selves. As the multitudes of stickers visitors stuck to the exit’s walls show, in its opening week, The Secret World Inside You has begun to educate hundreds of humans about their microbial friends. I’m certain it will educate many more and would love to see the walls when the exhibit closes nine months from now. I’m sure they will be solid with stickers. Go add yours! It was certainly worth our road trip to NY from Baltimore!
The exhibit opened November 7, 2105 and runs until August 14, 2016. A fantastic book, Welcome to the Microbiome: Getting to Know the Trillions of Bacteria and other Microbes In, On, and Around You, written by Dr. DeSalle and Dr. Perkins and the card game Gutsy, developed by Dr. Perkins, accompany the exhibit and continue teaching more about the microbiome. See my future posts on these two excellent microbiome educational tools. For an interesting review on how the exhibit was conceived and built check out this post.