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Embracing Your Germs: 'The Zoo In You' Exhibit Opens In Ashland


They’re everywhere. In your intestines, mouth, nose, all over your skin. We usually think of microbes as germs that make us sick. But a new exhibit in Ashland, Oregon teaches children and adults to embrace their germs.

Two men are unloading dozens of carts from a 53-foot truck. These carts are filled with brightly colored larger-than-life displays of bacteria and viruses. They’re unpacking an exhibit at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, Oregon. It’s here to teach children about the many microorganisms that live in and on our bodies and about the benefits of germs.

Summer Brandon: “We have ‘The Zoo in You’ that is exploring the human microbiome, so, all the things that are in you and on you that aren’t you.”

Summer Brandon is the Director of Education at ScienceWorks. She says scientists now know that nearly all the cells in our bodies are bacterial. “For every cell that is you, there are something like ten cells that aren’t you in your body,” says Brandon.

Chip Lindsey is the Executive Director of ScienceWorks. He says our gut—the large and small intestine--is teeming with bacteria. “In a pinch of poop you have more bacterial cells than there are people on the planet – WOW. Ok, so that’s just a pinch. So inside your whole gut there’s trillions of bacteria.”

Lindsey explains that these trillions of bacteria play a crucial role in human health. Beneficial bacteria help us digest our food and aid in fighting off infectious diseases. New evidence suggests bacteria are also important in regulating the metabolism.

Andy Kuzmitz is a doctor in private practice in Ashland and an expert on the human microbiome.  “Because the metabolism is actually controlled primarily by the bacteria in our gut, it's  critical that we have the right set of bacteria down there," says Kuzmitz.

Every human has different bacteria. While we don’t yet know exactly which microbes we need to have a healthy microbiome, we do know that the overuse of antibiotics is contributing to the rise in immune disorders, like allergies and asthma.

Antibiotics kill bad bacteria, sure, but they are also harmful to our good bacteria. Dr. Kuzmitz explains that wiping out this good bacteria with antibiotics may even be making us fat.  “With the various use of antibiotics over the generations, this has altered our metabolism. We now know that every time you take an antibiotic, you gain a little bit of weight,” says Kuzmitz.

Laboratory experiments have further found that you can make mice slender or make them fat by changing the bacteria in their guts, without changing their diet. Dr. Kuzmitz believes that someday pills containing healthy bacteria may actually replace pharmaceutical medicines. “After you see the long list of diseases – from cancer to diabetes to immune problems – we’re going to say, of course we want to fix these diseases! And we can do it without medicines. We can do it the way Mother Nature is meant to do it,” maintains Kuzmitz.

In the meantime, food producers around the country have found a market among people who want to eat healthy bacteria, foods like lacto-fermented sauerkraut that are bubbling with beneficial microbes. Lacto-fermentation is a process that introduces healthy strains of bacteria, including lactobacillus, into food. These bacteria are believed to be a key component of a healthy microbiome.

In his commercial kitchen, Jacksonville entrepreneur Jeffrey Levin explains how he shreds 45 pounds of organic cabbage and mixes it with a pound of salt.

Jeffrey Levin: “Put the cabbage in the hopper, this goes around, and it shreds the cabbage into a bin …”

Then he leaves it in a curing room to ferment for three weeks. Levin claims eating his kraut will give you a new lease on life.

Jeffrey Levin: “After that fermented fluid passes through your system, you will begin to feel better. You will have more energy and be able to get more done in your brain.”

He argues we should be eating live, bacteria-rich foods at every meal.

Jeffrey Levin: “So if you really want to energize your engine, have sauerkraut, and have it once a day.”

Back at ScienceWorks, Summer Brandon describes how one exhibit lets children play pinball to learn about how getting dirty can be good for your health. Teams of four work together to tip a ball over sensors that represent ways babies develop a healthy microbiome.

Summer Brandon: “These are things that a lot of times we thought about as not necessarily positive, like putting that pacifier back in your mouth after it’s been on the ground. In this game it is actually a goal to do that because it helps develop some of that gut bacteria.”

But this exhibit doesn’t have the kind of appeal that usually draws crowds to science museums, like nanotechnology or large land mammals. So, come on, can we really get the public interested in microbes? ScienceWorks Director Chip Lindsey says we can.  “You are not going to see big rubber dinosaurs in here,” says Lindsey. “But you will find out something about yourself. You’ll find yourself in this exhibit.”

The Zoo in You runs through January at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland, Oregon.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal and also produces radio features for JPR. She's a former senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.