Wednesday, November 04, 2015

UIS professors help contribute to new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

Michael Lemke, professor of biology at the University of Illinois Springfield, has helped to construct a new exhibit that will soon go on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was assisted by Keenan Dungey, UIS associate professor of Chemistry, who helped build prototypes on the Springfield campus.

The exhibit, “The Secret World Inside You”, explores the rapidly evolving science that is revolutionizing how we view human health. It will open to the public on November 7, 2015 and end on August 14, 2016.

According to the museum, the exhibit will explore the human microbiome. Our bodies are home to many trillions of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other organisms. In any human, microbial genes outnumber the genes in human DNA by more than 100 to one. This new perspective leads us to look at our bodies not just as individuals but as entire ecosystems.

“Our work for the exhibit draws a comparison between the human microbiome of the digestive tract and microbial ecosystems in soil” said Lemke. “This can be demonstrated in a column of soil and microbes called a Winogradsky column.”

Lemke’s work with the New York scientists on the Winogradsky columns started as a teaching activity in 1999, led to a publication in a teaching journal, then to a time lapse video (published online) and finally to an invite in May to help with the exhibit.

“The challenge for us was to scale up these microbial columns to the size wanted by the museum,” said Dungey. “Few people have tried to make Winogradsky columns that were 6 feet tall, so we had to figure out how the chemical gradients would affect the microbial growth.”

Investigating the human microbiome is a very young science, and researchers are just beginning to understand what constitutes a “normal” microbiome, how it changes over time, and how it affects health and disease. But what is clear is that the effects of the microbiome on its human host are profound and multifaceted—and could play an important role in common health problems like allergies, asthma, obesity, and even anxiety and depression.

“The Secret World Inside You” will take visitors on a tour of the human body, making stops at places where microbes thrive: your skin—which, covering about 20 square feet, is your largest organ—and your mouth and your gastrointestinal tract, which is home to your body’s densest and most diverse microbial community, among others.

How do your interactions with microbes—from the type of environment where you grew up to the number of times you have taken an antibiotic, which destroys both bad and good bacteria—influence your health? In what ways can your microbiome be said to be its own organ? And is it possible that the state of the bacteria in your gut plays a role in your mental health?

“The Secret World Inside You” will explore these intriguing questions and more with interactive activities, videos, and a live theater where a presenter will show visitors how scientists are navigating this exciting new field of research.

This project is supported by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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