Swab, Learn, and See In The Sackler Lab

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This summer, the Museum hosts the Healthy Microbiome Project—an exciting scientific study to find out more about the microbes that make, and keep, us all healthy. All visitors age 18 and older are invited to participate—just stop by the Sackler Educational Laboratory on the first floor, Saturdays and Sundays through July 31.

Dr. Julia Zichello is the manager of the Sackler Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins at the Museum. 

Ask someone how they feel about bacteria, and you’ll get a few standard responses. 

“Yuck!” 

“Gross!”

“Disgusting!”

Microorganisms have a bad rap, known chiefly for causing discomfort and disease, but new research is changing views of our microscopic companions. E.coli, for instance, is best known as a common cause of food poisoning. But it is also one of the most abundant and diverse bacterial types found in a healthy human gut, and is among the first bacteria species to colonize newborn babies. 

E. coli bacteria

E. coli bacteria like these may play an important role in human health.

Image courtesy of USDA


E. coli is with us almost literally from the day we’re born, and it’s just one of the many invisible helpers that get us through our days, evolve with us over time, and contribute to our optimal health by helping us digest food, boosting our immune systems, fighting off harmful microbes, and more.

The Healthy Human Microbiome Project has been running in the Museum’s Sackler Educational Lab for a few weekends now, and in that time, more than 450 anonymized samples of microbes from the hands, noses, and mouths of visitors have been collected. It's a growing microbial dataset that is exciting for a number of reasons. The first is that visitors to the lab come from many different parts of the world, making the sample of people more diverse than many datasets used to assess aspects of human health and variation. This diversity of sampling is key to advancing our understanding of what characterizes the human microbiome. Being able to compare microbiomes from people around the world will help establish an essential baseline, and offer a more useful definition of what a healthy microbiome really looks like.

Human Origins Overview

Visitors can participate in the Sackler Educational Laboratory, located inside the Museum's Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.

 © AMNH/D. Finnin


In keeping with the Museum’s educational goals, the project also provides a great opportunity to help visitors understand the role microbes play in our lives and dispel persistent myths about bacteria. In addition to gathering important scientific data, we’re able to introduce microscopic life to a 4-year old for the first time—and  explain to some germaphobe parents why laying off the hand sanitizer can be good for everyone’s health.

But people come into the lab to see something, not just to be told tales of invisible worlds. Whether they participate in the Healthy Human Microbiome Project or not, visitors will be able to hold science in their hands in the lab, view microbes under microscopes, see bacteria growing wildly in colonies, and take quizzes to push their new knowledge.

Stop by the lab to swab, learn, and see, from noon to 5 pm on Saturdays and Sundays through July 31. You can leave us billions of your microbes, and learn a thing or two about the neighbors you carry with you every day.

For further details about how you can participate in the Healthy Microbiome Project, see the calendar listing. To learn more about the human microbiome at the Museum, visit the temporary exhibition The Secret World Inside You, open now.