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Understanding Our Microbial Neighbors

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Over the past weekend, the Museum helped to launch 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 Sunday through July 31.

Jeffrey Shaman is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and a co-principal investigator on the Healthy Microbiome Project whose research explores the ways that environmental conditions and weather impact human health.

Microbes like bacteria, viruses, and fungi abound in our world: in our soil, our water, our food, and even the air around us. They're also inside us, colonizing our the skin, mouth, nose, gut, and more of every human on the planet. Part of the mission of the Healthy Microbiome Project, which kicked off this past weekend in the Museum’s Sackler Educational Laboratory, is to foster an improved understanding of these microbes we share the world with, both for the general public and the scientific community. 

Bacteria Battling Athletes Foot
A larger-than-life depiction of bacteria fighting the fungus that causes athlete’s foot on display in The Secret World Inside You.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

The relationship between humans and their microbes stretches back millions of years into prehistory, and over this time, their DNA has become part of our own DNA. We are every one of us integrated and cohabiting with these myriad organisms, most of which remain unidentified by science. In recent years, though, it has become clear how profoundly these microbes impact human health, and how little we understand abuot the many roles they play in our lives.

The vast majority of them do no harm, and many species help our bodies go about very basic daily business. Microbes help us digest food, synthesize essential nutrients, and even help to ward off diseases. While people still largely associate microbes with disease, the reality is that most of these microbes serve us well.

Enlarged image of Helicobacter pylori bacterium, which can live in human gut
While it can cause ulcers, researchers believe that Helicobacter pylori may also play a crucial role in human health.
© AMNH/B. Peterson

To learn more about the helpful microbes that live, on, and around you, join us each weekend this summer in the Sackler Educational Lab. You’ll get to see microbes under a microscope, observe growing bacterial samples, and learn about the different characteristics of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, as well as the roles some of them play in making you who you are. Adults can even get swabbed for science, contributing samples of their own microbial makeups for scientific study.

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.