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New Exhibit Explores Human Microbiome

HOST INTRO: Microbes — the trillions of micro-organisms living in, on and around us — are having their moment in the limelight. Thanks to new technology, we can look at millions more of these organisms than we could 5 years ago. A new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, puts bacteria at center stage. Isabella Kulkarni reports.

The Secret World Inside of You dives into your microbiology, from how cows digest grass to the microbes in your mouth that give you bad breath in the morning. Nine-year-old Lily is in the exhibit’s corridor of twinkling lights. She reads from one of the interactive screens.

Lily 1: You’re not just an individual. You’re an ecosystem. (0:05)

An ecosystem made up of several pounds of microbes. Jack Gilbert is a microbiologist and founder of the American Gut project, an open-source, research project, that analyzes bacteria in the human gut.

Gilbert 1: Our bacterial cells still weigh around three pounds of our body mass. That’s about the same size as our brain. (0:07)

And the brains in the field of science and medicine are beginning to think differently about microbes. Robert DeSalle is the co-curator of the exhibit and a scientist at the Sachler institute of comparative genomics. He says research on the microbiome before had left out vast swaths of bacteria.

DeSalle 1: It’s almost like going into a rainforest and missing half of the animals that are there (0:06).

And now, thanks to DNA sequencing technology, microbes have finally found their place in the study of human health.

Gilbert 2: But now we’re starting to realize that the other thousand or so species that live in our bodies, actually play a significant role in our health and well being (0:10).

Seven-year old Sophia Lusevic and her mother Tina hover around a museum exhibit. They’re playing a virtual game to learn about their health, shooting things like wheat bread and peanuts at bacteria.

Sophia 1: Well what I’m doing is that there’s a slingshot here and you can put it in different ways like from side to side and you pick a medicine like which one will help you antibiotic, probiotic (0:14).

Tina, a nurse practicioner, suggests another tactic.

Lusevik 1: But this one is too well established you need something stronger. How about a fecal transplant, holy moly (0:08).

Fecal transplants are one of the ways research on the microbiome has made its way into the hospital. Dr. Andrew Meltzer, an Emergency Room doctor and Professor at George Washington University says that killing all bacteria can cause problems. He explains how C.Diff, a disease causing bacteria, takes over a person’s gut when it’s emptied of all good bacteria,

Meltzer 1: What happens is they usually get broad spectrum antibiotics which knocks out all the normal gut flora in their colon and the C. diff grows back and grows back at a much higher rate than the normal healthy bacteria and because of that they get terrible symptoms (0:20).

Symptoms that involve running to and from the bathroom. So there are Poop transfers — a donor provides his or her waste full of healthy bacteria to a patient whose gut has been overtaken by the threatening kind. Bodily waste must be a hot area in microbiome research. Next up for Meltzer? A research project on urine.

Meltzer 2: I have a theory that basically changes in the normal microbial environment of urine maybe promotes or inhibits the development of kidney stones. (00:10)

We used to think of urine as sterile, says Meltzer. But now we are starting to see it as a playground rich in bacteria. From bodily fluids, to the skin we’re in, the microbiome is making us rethink our bodies and our germs.

Isabella Kulkarni, Columbia Radio News.


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