Museum of Nature exhibition on microbes gets to the guts of the matter

The digestive system contains millions of microbes that enter your body at every meal. Indeed, after your skin, the digestive system is the main place where your body comes in contact with microbes. The mouth is home to hundreds of microbial species, whose interactions can determine your oral health. Visitors to the exhibition will discover some of these microbes and what role they play. Photo:AMNH/R. Mickens

Let’s ignore the grammatically fraught title of Me and My Microbes at the Museum of Nature (“My Microbes and Me,” yes?), and get to the unsettling facts of the exhibition. 

You are covered in tiny, living things. Each of us has a “microbiome” that is distinct to us, but what’s universal is that every one of us is literally a walking ecosystem of abundant and varied life. At this moment, you are host to perhaps 40 trillion microbes — “more than the number of stars in the Milky Way, by about tenfold,” says Kathy McCoy, a professor of immunology and the scientific director at the International Microbiome Centre in Calgary. 

Your microbes include hundreds of different types of bacteria, viruses, etc., of all shapes and sizes. Here’s a potentially squirm-inducing quote from the exhibition: “A patch of skin the size of a five-cent coin on your forehead may contain more than two million microbes.” There are more than 150 species of bacteria living on the palm of your hand, and they’re different on each of your hands, as your left and right hands often touch different things. 

It is a micro world of change and exchange; shake hands with another human and microbes are exchanged, pet your dog or cat and microbes are exchanged, touch the “press here” buttons on interactive displays at the new exhibition and microbes are exchanged. (Is that ironic? Me and my 40 trillion microbes will have to think about that.)

Precisely where a microbe lives on you depends on the type of microbe they are. Some types of microbes look for a happy home on you based on your “skin temperature, texture, thickness, humidity and chemistry.” They may live on the surface of your eye, or inside your nose, or somewhere else inside. The bulk of them are living in your large intestine. 

And they’re busy. Most reproduce by splitting in two, and some can reproduce three times in an hour. They’re always talking, so to speak. A wall panel explains, “Individuals constantly send and receive chemical signals that help them act in unison when conditions are right,” just like humans in a nightclub. 

The exhibition begins with birth, when a human first encounters microbes in the birth canal, after nine months in the “nearly sterile” amniotic sac. Viewers then move through a section on the vast microbe university that is your skin, and, finally, a section on internal microbes, and the dramatic effects they can have on the human body and mind.

Research shows how microbes are key factors in anxiety, depression and obesity, and possibly even autism. Increases in deadly allergies and asthma in developed nations are linked to urban Western notions of hygiene, and our unhealthy diet. 

“Microbes are very beneficial for our health,” McCoy says. “That’s important because we are in a society that’s very germaphobic, we try to sterilize everything, and that’s not a good thing.”

It’s not all good news. Research shows that certain microbes may alter human behaviour. One widespread bacteria may influence habits like how we dress, or even increase risky behaviours.

The research on microbes is expansive, and at times quirky. Scientists interested in “what happens to bacteria when bodies collide” tested roller derby players before and after games, and found “the skaters traded microbes, at least temporarily.” Sometimes microbes leave for other reasons, as you shed more than a million dead skin cells every hour, and millions of microbes go with them, no roller skates required.

Like roller derby-ers, microbes fight for territory. One installation shows much-larger-than-life bacteria in pitched battle with the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. Blown up a gazillion times so we can witness the battle, it looks like a pile of sticks fighting a handful of Tylenol. Such conflicts are under way on/in your body right now. You are a battlefield. 

Speaking of athlete’s foot, another display allows you to smell the bacteria that causes stinky feet and stinky Limburger cheese. It’s the same bacteria, a bit of knowledge that’s unlikely to boost sales of limburger cheese.

Me and My Microbes, the Zoo Inside You continues to March 29.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.