The zoo on the head of a pin: Artis Micropia and bacteria

Artis Micropia, a zoo filled with the microscopic, is hoping to change our attitudes towards microbes.  

The last time I went to the zoo I learned the favorite foods of fruit bats.  First, I read it on a sign.  Second, I stood very close and watched the fruit bat eat its favorite foods.  And third, I narrowly missed having a fruity vomit shower. The zoo is a wonderful way, sans expurgated stomach contents, to build understanding of some of the others with whom we share the planet.

We are keenly aware of the macroscopic animals on earth but we are less aware of our microscopic neighbours.  We have developed a more nuanced awareness of the visible inhabitants of the planet, their preferences, their habitats, and in some cases, their symbiotic relationships.  Even the ones that live deep under the sea.  While we have not neglected the microscopic world in scientific research, the public has not developed as deep a familiarity with the microbial inhabitants of our world.

Diatoms (Triceratium sp.) are one of the most important oxygen producers on earth. Photo Micropia, Wim van Egmond

Our fundamental knowledge of bacteria and other microscopic organisms focuses on what can kill us because infections used to account for a high proportion of our mortality rates. For us laypeople, we know bacteria cause flesh eating diseases and pneumonia, same with cholera and syphilis.  And for a long time, this is where the scientific and medical communities have concentrated their research efforts.

Did you know that our bodies are home to at least 10,000 microbial species?  “There is more mass in the microbes than the mass of our brain”, according to microbiologist Jonathon Eisen in his TED Talk entitled Meet your Microbes. We are literally teeming with microscopic life.  They are everywhere, from our gut to our lungs and from our hands to our feet.  You, yes you, are in fact a complete ecosystem.

A better understanding

So not every microbe is harmful. In fact, many of them are beneficial to us. And some are just harmless passengers, literally using us as a gigantic transatlantic flight.  So how do we develop a better understanding of our microscopic neighbors?

You could subscribe to journals in the field of microbiology to keep yourself updated on the latest research and results.  You could find and make friends with a microbiologist and have lengthy scientific discussions over coffee and cake.  Or the answer could be simpler than you think.

You could just go to the zoo

Artis Micropia is a collection of the microscopic. Nestled within the zoo in Amsterdam, the Natura Artis Magistra, Micropia takes its visitors on a voyage through the unseen world – from microscopic animals like the nearly indestructible water bear to the microbes that live in your mouth (an estimated 700 species).

The water bear (phylum Tardigrada) can survive in the most extreme conditions. Image Micropia, ANP Photo

The mission of the microbe zoo is to foster a greater understanding of the unseen world and to close the gap between the knowledge of the scientific community and the public.

 “There is a serious knowledge gap between the science and the general public”, according to the museum.  “If there is any generally held view about the invisible micro-world at all, it is a negative one.  Unknown is unloved.  This is dangerous because the lack of understanding and the preconceptions about microbes lessen support among the public for the scientific work being done and this has a negative effect on innovation.”

At Micropia the microbes are the stars of the show.  As with the aquarium, also within the larger zoo, the only light in the space comes from the exhibits themselves.  And like everything at Artis, the exhibits are alive.

Discover your own microbes with the body scan. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

This view into the microscopic will create more familiarity with the invisible world, like what we have with the macroscopic.  “It is impossible to fully understand the interconnectivity of the natural world without knowledge of the most powerful, most successful and, at the same time, smallest organisms”, museum founders say of their overall intentions for the institution.

The latest research

So, what has been happening in the world of microbiology recently?  Scientists recently discovered that bacteria can grow super conductive Nano threads, meaning that actual green and organic electronics are not far away.   Scientists now believe that feeding red algae to cows could reduce methane emissions, a highly toxic greenhouse gas, by up to 70%.  A species of bacteria found in a canal in the Netherlands breaks down nitrates in water and converts methane to carbon dioxide.

In the laboratory of Micropia technicians make cultures of micro-organisms. Photo Micropia, Maarten van der Wal

Perhaps Louie Schwarzberg, filmmaker, said it best in his TED Talk, The Hidden Miracles of the Natural World.   “Under an endless rain of cosmic dust, the air is full of pollen, micro diamonds, and jewels from other planets and super nova explosions.  People go about their lives surrounded by the unseeable.”  To this I would add wild yeasts, other harmless bacteria, and some micro-animals that float, invisible, in front of our eyes.

Schwarzberg continues, “Knowing that there is so much around us we can’t see forever changes or understanding of the world.”  And this is just what Artis Micropia wants.  And what we should all want – that greater understanding of our world that drives innovation and progress.

Keep yourself informed, and change your perspective by heading out to Micropia (in Amsterdam) or by reading their news feed.

Cover image: Micropia

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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