It’s that time of the year again. Time to prepare for the new semester. This spring, I’ll be teaching an introductory microbiology course designed for sophomore and junior biology majors. Even though I taught the course last spring, I’ll be making significant changes. I need to make changes. A lot has happened in the field of microbiology during the past year.
Over the past twelve months, we have seen significant progress in our battle with infectious diseases. The Ebola outbreak that has affected West Africa since the spring of 2014 finally, thankfully, seems to have ended. During the last week of 2015, no new cases were reported in the region and Guinea was declared free of Ebola transmission. Another pathogen, poliovirus, soon may be completely eliminated from Earth. The virus remains endemic in only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – and only 70 wild type infections were reported in these two countries.
Despite this progress, challenges with infectious diseases remain. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a major, and growing, concern. In countries like the United States, the reluctance of some parents to vaccinate their children has led to a dramatic increase in preventable diseases like measles. Because of climate change, infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes are spreading to historically more temperate climates.
Recent developments in the field of microbiology, of course, are not limited to the study of infectious diseases. Since I taught microbiology a year ago, we have learned much more about CRISPR, the so-called bacterial immune system. Indeed, discussions of gene editing, a powerful and controversial genetic engineering technique based on CRISPR, have dominated the field of biology over the past twelve months.
I’ll add all of these exciting new developments to my course this spring. Probably most faculty members teaching undergraduate microbiology courses will address these topics. I’ll also add something less obvious – the intersection of microbiology and art. As Charissa and I continue to develop Gut Instinct, our online art exhibition that examines art associated with the human gut microbiome, I am looking for ways to incorporate this exhibition specifically, and art more generally, into my course. At this point, I’m still not sure how this incorporation will occur. But I do know that it will be a valuable addition. Throughout The Bridge residency, I have been reminded again and again that science and art do not, and cannot, exist in silos. To fully understand and appreciate the complexities of life, we need to bridge the artificial gulf between these disciplines.
Microbiota, Microbiome, and Everyday Life: Pop Art Renewed!
During the middle of the holiday rush, my collaborator Dave Wessner sent me an interesting article, “Bacterial Exchange In Household Washing Machines” (Callewaert, Nevel, Kerckhof, Granitsiotis, Boon, Dec. 2015). Scientists compared the microbial exchange in five household washing machines. They discovered that “the number of living bacteria was generally notlower in washing machine effluent water as compared to the influent water” (my emphasis) and that “the bacteria on the ingoing textiles contributed…to the microbiome found in the textiles after laundering.”
What are we to deduce from this? Without a doubt, bacteria are robust and determined little creatures. In reading the article (to my best ability – it was very technical!), I was also struck by the union of sophistication and banality: the use of extraordinarily advanced technology, such as amplicon pyrosequencing, electrophoresis, and statistical analyses, to read the DNA of the bacteria in the water – clean and dirty – from the washing process. Lesson learned: biological complexity sits at the core of seeming simplicity and banal, everyday life activities.
It was not the first time that I made the connection between microbiota, the microbiome, and the plain old stuff of everyday life, which, on the whole, made me think of Pop Art.
In researching the bacteria of the gut and its DNA, and organizing our exhibition Gut Instinct, I keep coming back to the collision of “high and low.” In the history of art, this usually means high and low culture. While the colliding of the two was something avant-garde artists did as early as 1863, its apotheosis was with Pop Art in the early 1960s. The most prominent artists of the moment were Dick Hamilton, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, and Yayoi Kusama.
I noticed a similar hi-lo blending in the PBS documentary In Defense of Food, based on American journalist Michael Pollan’s 2008 book of the same title. The gist of the show unfolds around Pollan’s rightful critique of “nutritionism,” which is the substitution of holistic food with bits of nutrition, vitamins, and chemical components. Through nutritionism, marketing, science, and the mass media have conjoined to overcome everyday eating habits. Nutritionism is the substitute for consuming a simple balanced diet made up of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains (viz. unprocessed food).
A grocery cart rolls down an aisle amid a blitzkrieg of colorful labels. Narrator Pollan tells his viewers that the healthiest foods in the grocery store are the quietest, the fresh fruits and vegetables located along the periphery of the story far away from the packaged, processed robotfood at the center. Scenes of Western grocery stores cut away to those of the wild: panoramas of the Tanzanian Hadza tribe, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the world, foraging and eating roots, baobobs, and cooked freshly killed meat. Members of the Hadza tribe live long healthy lives not eating processed foods – and the microbiome of their microbiota is far more diverse than ours. Lesson learned again: biological complexity sits at the core of seeming simplicity and banal, everyday life activities.
In a similar vein, the quotidian is the wellspring of bacterial phenomena in the art of our upcoming online exhibition Gut Instinct. Canadian scientist-artist François-Joseph Lapointe probes everyday activities, such as handshaking at academic conferences, eating, and sex with his wife, for shifts in the microbiome. Lapointe’s art is richly hybrid, a strain of performance art, science, and Pop Art all in one. British artist-scientist Anna Dumitriu focuses on the communication of bacteria through clothing. In Dumitriu’s Communicating Bacteria Project, the artist stained textiles with dyes made from bacteria that change color dependent on the behavior and communication of bacteria. A dress lights up with a crisscrossing network of lines, revealing the communication of microbiota. Lesson learned again: biological complexity sits at the core of seeming simplicity and banal, everyday life activities.