The revolutionary microbiome: public perceptions

24 May 2019

From the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Dr Robert DeSalle brought the changing field of microbiology into the lime light last Thursday, speaking at the Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) about how the museum has communicated recent findings to the public.

Dr DeSalle outlined the history of how microbes have influenced our thinking and way of life, from ancient civilisations to the development of antibiotics.

He spoke about the high throughput biological technology that has emerged in recent decades, such as NextGen DNA sequencing, and how this has changed the way scientists characterise and analyse microbes.

Today, it is estimated there may be up to 200 million different species on the planet; and microbes make up around 99% of that estimate.

Current DNA sequencing technology now allows us to sequence a sample such as soil, or tissue from a wound infection, and characterise the entire microbiome of that sample. Most known species of bacteria cannot be cultured in the lab, which is why DNA sequencing is such a huge advantage.

Dr DeSalle highlighted the importance of educating the public on current research, saying AMNH is “founded on the twin pillars of education and research.”

Dr DeSalle expressed concerns over the lack of awareness in the public about microbes. A kiosk survey at the museum surveyed over 200, 000 visitors and found that most people cannot identify which drugs are antibiotics, when shown a list which included aspirin and penicillin.

The survey also identified that people tend to associate microbes with disease and contamination over biodiversity and symbiosis.

Dr DeSalle speculated that characterising microbiomes may soon replace the traditional method of isolating and characterising an individual microbe to determine whether it might cause disease, a method known as Koch’s Postulates.

The implications for such a paradigm shift in the way microbes are characterised are significant; not only in regard to human health but also ecology, agriculture and forensics.

CPAS hosts regular research seminars with visiting speakers. See our upcoming events here

This article written by CPAS student Sarah Poole.