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The Millions Of Bacteria In You!

In the thick of flu season, there aren’t many people who like the idea of germs. But the truth is, we’re all hosts to trillions of bacteria living in us. And that is a good thing!

The Secret World Inside You, an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, gets into the science behind the microbiome (the microorganisms in a particular environment, in this case, our bodies), and shows us how these microbes are critical to good health and well-being.

It’s an eye-opening exhibit that greets you with a burst of twinkling lights representing the trillions of organisms making up the human microbiome. The mostly black entrance hall, speckled with these Christmas tree-like lights is enhanced by mirrors surrounding the space.

“It’s like we just entered another world!” said Gemma, seven, a visitor to the show.

This other world, deep inside the human body, is the core of the exhibit, which is comprised of extra-large models of bacteria, including a cellulose-eating Bacteroidetes (a species in the gut), game-like interactive displays to build your biome, and a documentary video that provides new insight into how microbes effect our health. This is the place to get your bearings in this huge new world inside of us.

“We can only be seen and exist with the unseen microbes,” says the film’s narrator, referring to the life-supporting features of this ecosystem.

For example, providing oxygen and contributing to photosynthesis are two ways we rely on our microbiomes. Yet bacteria has been given a bad name because of its association with illnesses.

“We wash our hands regularly because germs spread fast, and we don’t want to get sick,” said Milo, 10, a visitor playing "Feed Your Gut," one of the interactive displays where participants must choose between noshing options such as chips, mashed potatoes, and miso. Their selection is then shot off, pinball-style, into a colorful mass that creates the microbiome. Eventually a score is given, rating the overall aptitude for good health.

Milo thought long and hard on choosing between kimchi and crackers.

“I like how crackers taste. But I think the kimchi is probably better for my microbiome,” he said while launching his answer into an explosion of red dots. Milo scored 100% this round.

Another display, "Cure Your Infection," presents broad spectrum versus narrow spectrum antibiotics options and how they work.

As a mother always looking to choose wisely for my children, I was already familiar with the notion that antibiotics can be harmful. I didn’t, however, know this medication came in a range that targets different bacteria. For instance, Bacitracin is only effective against Gram-positive bacteria, whereas Tetracycline is active against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative microorganisms.

“You don’t want to indiscriminately kill your microbes,” said a docent, at the museum. “You can embrace science, but you need to ask questions.”

Fecal transplants, a cutting edge treatment, also turned up as an option in the display game, called "Cure Your Infection." They are doing this in Memorial Sloan Kettering with cancer patients suffering from Clostridium difficile, the docent said.

The mind-body connection is explored on a wall of text documenting the research of more than 500 studies, which have linked the microbiome in mice and humans to behavior, anxiety, and depression.

The exhibit notes that some studies suggest men affected by Toxoplasma gondii, a single cell parasite, get this because they dress more sloppily while women dress better. Both men and women have slower reaction times and get in more car accidents when affected by this parasite.

Towards the end of the exhibit, there is a live presentation where participants answer multiple-choice questions such as “Which area in your home has similar microbes to the ones found on your pillowcase?”

Esme, eight, pressed her button with the enthusiasm of someone on Jeopardy.

The answer, your toilet seat, was shocking to many watching.

“I guess it has something to do with the cheeks,” punned the presenter, Hannah Sinclaire, our Microbiome Lab technician for the presentation.

When asked what surprised her most, Ms. Sinclaire replied, “Each presenter had to have their belly buttons swabbed and cultured, and I was surprised when my results came back. It showed that I had the lowest common types of microbes in the belly button area (because of my over-cleaning there). But after my results, I actually stopped using strong cleansers on my belly button and just use regular soap and water.”

Unlike other exhibitions in the museum, which are encased in glass and somewhat abstract, The Secret World Inside You provides information relevant to who we are today, and how we care for our bodies.

Sinclaire added, “It demonstrates a firsthand immediate experience on understanding how small the microbial world is, yet how important it has been and will be.”

—Elysha Lenkin

The Secret World Inside You runs through August 16 at the American Museum of Natural History.

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