My eyes were drawn to the unusual name: Bacillus subtilis. As an infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, I had expected to recognize all of the bacteria in the room, but here I drew a blank.
As I scanned my brain, a putrid odor hit my nostrils. Next to me, a smiling man was vigorously wafting a disgusting scent in my direction. The pungent smell of sweaty feet did more to teach me about what Bacillus subtilis does than my years of medical training. “And this one,” he said, as he moved his hand above a different canister, “this one’s stinky cheese!”
We were on the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History, and the man toying with my senses was Robert DeSalle, co-curator of “The Secret World Inside You.” The new exhibit, which opened this week and runs through August 2016, explores how we co-exist with the wild array of microbes living in and upon us — collectively known as the microbiome.
DeSalle took me around the exhibit after I had finished seeing patients on Tuesday. As we entered a dimly lit room, we were met by a dazzling array of suspended lights and a sign with a gentle reminder: Bacteria are living things. They are not trying to hurt you. They are not trying to help you. They are just trying to stay alive, like the rest of us.
A moment later, he and I were standing in front of a large video monitor, where one of my colleagues, Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, was explaining why bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. “The information presented here,” DeSalle told me, “is from scientific articles and world experts.”
It didn’t take long to recognize that he was right. The exhibit is heavily referenced. But unlike most of the academic papers I’m used to reading, “Secret World” is visually stunning, with a 14-foot talking woman and a kaleidoscope of mind-altering images representing the most unusual and important organisms on the planet.
DeSalle took me deeper inside the exhibit, to what appeared to be a pinball machine. It was actually an interactive module. “You can build your own microbiome,” he said. “Check it out.”
I selected food from my normal diet — rice, popcorn, lentils, an occasional lollipop — and, like the classic arcade game, plunged these foodstuffs deep into my hypothetical microbiome, where they bounced around racking up points. As I played, children lined up behind me. They would have to wait.
I clicked an image and suddenly my microbiome exploded. I had inadvertently swallowed a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Then an icon appeared that looked like a giant turd. It represented a fecal transplant.
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“This is really cool,” DeSalle said, pointing at the brown pile. “Now you have a C. diff infection and you need a transplant. This is what the microbiome is all about!” Many of the finer points of antibiotic use that I had tried (in vain) to convey to my own patients were clearly and vividly presented in this simple pinball game.
I thought about the ways I had stumbled through telling patients about probiotics or warning them against indiscriminate antibiotic use. “It’s complicated,” I’d say. As eyelids grew heavy, I’d reassure myself that this stuff is inherently dull: Hey, it’s not my fault the truth is boring.
Oh, how wrong I have been.
How we interact with our microbial partners is perhaps the most exciting frontier in medicine. Hardly a week goes by without a crucial new finding related to how these bacteria impact our lives. More than a dozen companies have launched in recent years to develop microbiome-modulating therapies. Unfortunately, the latest science on how this microbial world affects our health is rarely presented in an accessible, engaging way, or in a format that’s easily digestible. This exhibit changes that.
“One of the best things about this,” DeSalle said as we eventually moved on, “is the response from kids. They come away from the exhibit realizing that we share our bodies with all of these other organisms!”
Dare I say his enthusiasm was infectious?
As the children explored the modules, adults stood on the periphery, contemplating a host of provocative questions posed on the walls: Why do poor people take more antibiotics? Could microbes play a role in human autism? Or obesity? Can bacteria make you depressed?
The detail that will ultimately stick with me is this: Over 70 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are fed to livestock to make them gain weight, not to cure disease.
The exhibit concludes with a live, interactive presentation called “Microbes and You,” in a bright room that resembles an ice cream parlor. It’s led by an instructor in a lab coat, who poses questions about the microbes living everywhere from your belly button to your television set. This segment has potential, but it’s still finding its footing. The docent leading my session apologized and said she wasn’t sure if she had pronounced Corynebacterium properly. (She had not.)
It’s the least essential part of the exhibit, and, frankly, your time is better spent exploring the modules and videos. I hope all of my patients get to see it. You should, too.