Living in a bacterial world
The latest exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is Bacterial World, an exploration of how these unimaginably tiny organisms shape our past, present and future. I wrote the text based on an interpretation strategy developed by Emily Scott-Dearing and the Museum team, led by director Paul Smith and advised by bacteriologist Judy Armitage.
As a flourish, the museum had arranged to display what must be the largest E coli bacterium in the world (let’s hope), an inflatable artwork by Luke Jerram that hangs at eye level as you walk the first floor on your way to the exhibition.
Bacteria survive, thrive, fight and die by the trillion every moment. They swim using nanoscopic motors, and battle with spears. They sense, communicate, remember. And as scientists like Judy (below, with necklace, along with Kelly, left, from the Museum team, Emily and me) discover more about these tiny organisms, it is becoming clear that bacteria wield huge influence over us.
As ever, the exhibition looks to make the most of the Museum’s historic collections to tell cutting-edge scientific stories going on in labs across Oxford and further afield. Geological specimens on display like the iron-rich red stone below, help us look back far, far in time to the great oxygenation event in which bacteria created the atmosphere we breathe today.
Bacteria live symbiotically with many species of animal and plant, and we tell these weird and wonderful stories in the exhibition. Then, we move on to the future. What are the most significant issues you feel the world faces? From clearing oil spills to eating plastic, halting infection to purifying water, even delivering targeted medicines using nanobots, bacteria have positive potential to help us. Their abilities continue to surprise the scientists who know them the best, and who seek to harness their properties for good.