Get to know your microbes at ‘The Secret World Inside You’

Museum exhibit introduces visitors to the microbiome


MICROBE MEETING  In a new museum exhibit, larger-than-life models of bacteria, like these cellulose-eating Bacteroidetes, show the diversity of microbes that live in and on people.

© R. Mickens/AMNH

The Secret World Inside You
Through August 14, 2016
American Museum of Natural History
New York City

Bacteria are not necessarily bad. That in a nutshell is the message of the newest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Featuring oversized models of glowing green bacteria, and in some places reeking of cheese and socks, the exhibit is on a mission to rehabilitate the reputation of microbes.

“There has been a paradigm shift recently,” says Rob DeSalle, cocurator of “The Secret World Inside You.” “Scientists had been focused on how individual microbes make us sick for almost a century, but now we want people to realize that the grand majority of them won’t hurt you.”

Visitors meander through dark corridors on a tour that celebrates the community of often benign and even helpful microorganisms living in and on us. Drawing on the explosion of research into that community, the microbiome, the exhibit introduces guests to their particular microbial makeup.

Do you own a dog? Your skin bacteria tend to be more diverse than those of the dogless. Did you have a C-section? Your infant didn’t get the typical dose of birth canal bacteria that babies born the old-fashioned way do. The consequences of such differences are often not addressed explicitly. But diversity — which some studies have linked to good health — is celebrated again and again.

The exhibit also leaves out some emerging fronts in microbiomics. For instance, it doesn’t explore correlations between gut bacterial diversity and autism (SN: 1/11/14, p. 8). DeSalle says he worried that people might confuse that association with the idea that gut bacteria cause autism, which has not been shown in human studies.

Activities for kids include a game and a quiz room. On the whole, though, the exhibit seems geared toward adults. Its displays, projected on walls dressed up to look like the gut, tend to be text heavy.

The museum tried to avoid advocating, DeSalle says. “We don’t want to say, ‘Don’t use hand sanitizer.’ ” Nevertheless, much of the information comes across as prescriptive. Experts in a video warn about “excessive washing” and caution that “we need to back off on antibiotics” to prevent resistant bacteria. Eating vegetables leads to a more diverse gut microbiome, we learn; eating fast food has the opposite effect.

My tour companion, a microbiome researcher, heeded that reminder at lunch. He ordered a salad that nourished his fiber-digesting gut bacteria. I stuck with the burger, apologizing all the while to my poor microbiome.

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