Sharing information not germs: THE EXHIBITION ME AND MY MICROBES
As you read this, be aware that you are not alone. You have your very own ecosystem: your body is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses and microbes. And that’s just as it should be! This microscopic community, your microbiome, works very hard to keep you healthy. (Most of the time, anyway!) That’s one of the things I learned at Me and My Mcrobes: The Zoo Inside You, the fascinating exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
There’s so much information in the exhibition that I hardly know where to start this blog post. Should I tell all, or leave out a few secrets for you to discover? One thing for sure, I want to go and see it again. There’s so much to learn!
At the exhibition entrance, there’s a description of what our microbiome does. Like us, it evolves, consumes, communicates, reproduces, moves … In short, it’s alive!
FROM HEAD TO TOE
The exhibition leads visitors along a route divided into different themes, each more fascinating than the last. It starts with the skin, the first point of contact with these minuscule life forms. And you read things like:
You have 2 million microbes on your skin.
In an area the size of a nickel.
On your forehead.
WHAT?? But I took a shower this morning! ?
We learn that individuals who live together (family members, roommates and even pets) have the same microbial makeup. That’s hardly surprising, but the display goes on to explain, among other things, that if a member of the household goes away for a weekend, the community of bacteria also changes. It travels and it moves; so much so that we shed 1.5 million dead cells and microbes … every hour!
Farther along, we witness a fight to the death between a bacterium and a fungus. Which will win? I obviously root for the bacterium, which is in pitched battle with the evil fungus that seeks only to do us harm—more specifically, to infect us with athlete’s foot. Save us, noble bacterium!
Right next to this supremely violent scene is an interactive panel with more foot-related information. Did you know we have something in common with cheese? I won’t tell you what it is—the panel explains it very well!
Ah. Smelling the Brevibacterium linens.
Another fascinating section covers the relationship between a fetus and its mother. You’d think their microbiomes would be identical, but no: the placenta is a kind of guardian that protects the baby from its mother’s microbes. At birth, the baby is “mature” enough to mingle with the outside world and create its own microbiome. The trip through the vaginal canal is important: that’s where the baby strengthens its immune and digestive systems.
HOW’S YOUR MICROBIOME?
The food we eat and the choices we make affect the lives of our microbes. It makes you think, especially when you compare the diet of different inhabitants of the world. Some populations have no incidence of diabetes or obesity. North Americans and Europeans have poor intestinal flora compared to the Yanomami, a people in the Amazon with the most varied intestinal flora in the world. Thanks to their unprocessed diet and the fact that they don’t take antibiotics, they have twice as much genetic diversity as the average American.
Not only is the microbiome essential for appetite, it’s essential for mental health! We learn that certain microbes can influence our thoughts and feelings. The example of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a case in point: studies show that infected men behave more recklessly, break the rules and are sloppier in their dress, while infected women become more sociable, confident and elegant. Am I carrying this parasite? You be the judge. One in three humans is infected.
AN EXHIBITION FOR ALL AGES
There’s lots to learn in this exhibition, and lots to read. Younger children may not be able to decipher everything, but some of the interactive stations will keep them busy. Besides smelling the bacterium Brevibacterium linens, they can touch the examination table where a giant woman is lying, surrounded by a description of her microbial environment. There are also three interactive games, including one about feeding your microbiome. Toddlers can cuddle the flu virus, an E. coli bacterium, or the cute Staphylococcus. (Please clean your stuffies regularly.)
Above all, don’t miss this exhibition (and wash your hands more often)!
Cuddle the E. Coli
ME AND MY MICROBES: THE ZOO INSIDE YOU
Canadian Museum of Nature, 240 McLeod St., Ottawa
Until March 29
$6 plus regular Museum admission