There are trillions of them, crawling on you, and in you. This is the disturbing news that comes early in “The Secret World Inside You,” an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History. “Your body is teeming with bacteria, viruses and other microbes,” a small video screen announces. The screen stands near the entrance, in a cosmic sea of tiny suspended lights, as sonorous space music pours forth in a sonic ooze.
Immediately, just as the shock is taking hold, a chipper postscript appears: “And that’s a good thing!”
The twinkling lights are stand-ins for the hundreds of trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms that, taken together, constitute something known as the human microbiome. The microbes in the intestinal tract alone outnumber the stars in the Milky Way. It is pleasant to think of them as points of light, because in real life, when magnified, they are hideous. Their lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired, too. It is squalid.
Take Propionibacterium acnes, one of many, many microbes living on the largest organ of the human body — skin. This particular individual is described as “rod shaped” but, let’s face it, closely resembles a pale yellow penis. It lurks deep in the pores, where skin oils supply it with energy and nutrients. It repays the favor by helping create zits.
Not to worry. Benign microbes vastly outnumber bad actors like Propionibacterium acnes. This is one of the main messages of the exhibition. But they’re ugly, too, and, it must be said, the organizers of the exhibition — Robert DeSalle and Susan Perkins, curators in the museum’s division of invertebrate zoology and the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics — have taken full advantage of the gross-out bonanza that nature has offered them. Their information dossier has been given lurid visual expression by David Harvey, the museum’s senior vice president for exhibitions.
The exhibition takes the visitor along a fluid path through a sequence of biological systems. One of them is the immune system. A large sculpture shows a macrophage, or immune cell, on the attack against a swarm of disease-causing Staphylococcus bacteria. Artificially colored to make the parts easier to identify, the macrophage looks like a large piece of plastic vomit with tentacles. Ignoring the big cobalt-blue hot dogs within their grasp (harmless Bacillus bacteria), these pseudopods, to use the proper term, have clutched a cluster of bright-red balls — the Staphylococcus bacteria — and warded off infection. It is a safe bet that 6-year-olds will gaze on this model in horrified fascination for quite some time.
(Click here to read the full article, written by William Grimes, NY Times)