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This New Exhibition Is a Tour of the Human Body’s ‘Hidden Organ’

I, for one, welcome our bacterial overlords.

by Becky Ferreira
Nov 5 2015, 7:19pm

Interactive table/germ-swapping station. Image: © AMNH/D. Finnin

The multitudes of microbial lifeforms that inhabit our bodies have gotten a bad rap over the years. They're often seen as nasty interlopers at best, and harmful invaders at worst. On Saturday, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) will redeem the good name of our microbial friends with its new special exhibition: The Secret World Inside You.

The exhibition presents the human microbiome as a giant, multifaceted ecosystem made up of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other creatures that have evolved alongside humans over millions of years. And there's an interactive exhibit where you can design your own microbiome, too. Essentially, the whole show is a chance to experience something similar to that gnarly episode of The Magic School Bus where Ms. Frizzle takes her students inside their sick classmate's body, only with as much of a focus on helpful bugs as on harmful ones, such as the flu virus.

The human microbiome is a "hidden organ, albeit one that is distributed throughout the entire body," said the exhibition's co-curator, parasitologist Susan Perkins. And indeed, one of the most astounding facts shared in the exhibit is that 99 percent of the genetic material in our bodies belongs to our microbes, with only a small sliver representing our own human set of 23 chromosomes.

Likewise, our bodies contain more microbial cells than human cells, which demonstrates how incredibly interwoven our lives are to the activities of the communities within us. Put it this way: If the human body were a representative democracy, our microbes would have an enormous legislative majority. Good luck trying to get anything through without their approval.

Trailer for the new exhibition. Video: American Museum of Natural History/YouTube

Techniques for studying our microbiomes are evolving as rapidly as the bacterial communities themselves. The field stands to greatly enhance our understanding of medical conditions ranging from obesity to depression.

Perkins and her co-curator Rob DeSalle highlight this transitional stage of research in the exhibit, and use it as a springboard for celebrating the human microbiome's diversity and resilience. For example, one of the interactive displays features a 14-foot projection of a pregnant woman's body, decorated with little nodes you can tap for more information about certain local biomes, like the mouth, hair, or uterus.

Interactive table/germ-swapping station. Image: © AMNH/D. Finnin

It's a great, tactile way to learn about each region. Of course, the setup also means that everyone is tapping the same part of the display with their germy little fingertips, presumably creating some kind of meta-exhibit at the microscale level. Gross. But neat.

Other displays predict what kind of bacteria you are doused in based on factors like your gender and your current dog ownership status.

"People have come to this museum generation after generation for the thrill of traveling through the natural world out into the universe, and among the cultures of humanity," AMNH director Ellen Futter said at a Wednesday preview of the show. "Now, with this exhibition, we are delighted to take visitors on a journey to an intriguing new realm—a journey inside themselves."