Making microbes public workshop - 3rd and 4th May

Stories about the human microbiome are increasingly being reported in the media and many people –  myself included – are fascinated by the relationship between humans and the microscopic ‘bugs’ that live on, in, and around us. I was part of a workshop last week, where a group of interdisciplinary scholars explored this relationship under the theme of ‘Making Microbes Public’.

The workshop began with an afternoon keynote presentation from microbiologist Anne Madden, who was fresh from delivering a TED talk in Vancouver on ‘bugs and bodies’. Anne gave us a frontline view of the work of scientists working with microbes and especially those who closely collaborate with industry partners. Anne describes herself as a ‘microbe wrangler’ and she focusses on how to harness the positive attributes of microbes and apply these in practical ways that will benefit humans.

The next day, we started with a session on ‘Microbes in Society’, and presentations from three anthropologists. Alex Nading began by introducing us to the bureaucratic routines that are part of the day-to-day biopolitics of food sanitation in Nicaragua. He provided a detailed and nuanced account of the interactions between bureaucrats and citizens that occurs during the food handling certification process. Food workers must undergo a blood test and provide a stool sample for analysis and this process is caught up in different layers of informal cultural practices and formal legal requirements. Alex’s narrative of the Nicaraguan public hygiene system reveals how social relations, understandings about microbes, and bureaucracy become intertwined.

Another anthropologist, Amber Benezra, took us on a fascinating journey which linked the work of scientists in North America to the daily life of poorer people living in Dhaka. This presentation revealed there is a problem when microbial science focusses on a ‘technological fix’ such as probiotics for malnutrition, when infrastructure problems such as open drains and other health sanitation issues also need to be addressed. It seems that by working closely with scientists, anthropologists can help resolve some of the disconnections between the laboratory and the realities of everyday life problems. But Amber also raised the question of who holds scientists to account especially when biological science aims to solve problems which are beyond the scope of ‘the biological’.

The third presentation, was from Eben Kirksey who introduced us to bacteria called wolbachia.  This is an extremely common parasitic species that lives in insects. This species can reorganise the bodies of their hosts at the microbial level, including changing the sex of their hosts. Interestingly, the ubiquitous and sheer numbers of wolbachia in the world, challenges the notion of heteronormative sex.  Eben left us to consider a potential future where polyamorous and promiscuous bacteria like wombachia could survive well beyond human life.

The second session of the day was called ‘Doing Microbiology with Citizens’. This began with Jamie Lorimer and Tim Hodgetts outlining their research on the Good Germs/Bad Germs project. They have been exploring the domestic microbiome through the development of a participatory approach to microbiology. This project involves households in Oxford, going on a ‘kitchen safari’, where participants and the researchers have worked together to design experiments on kitchen microbiomes. Findings from the research suggest it is challenging to move beyond thinking about microbes as pathogens. There has also been positive feedback from some participants who have felt empowered by their involvement in the research design and data collection.

Claire Waterton then provided an overview of her research on the impact of algae (cyanobacteria) blooms on a Lake District community. This interdisciplinary project is tracing the relationship between the microbial organisms who live in the lake and the human residents living alongside it. We heard about how it was difficult to assign blame for the cause of the algae blooms, due to the complex natural and human systems that are in the area. The project set up a collective which enabled different stakeholders’ viewpoints to be incorporated into a complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, debate about community life on the lake.

The next presentation, from social and cultural geographer Emma Roe, described her work engaging health professionals in hand hygiene practices. This research used experimental methods to map the movement of microbes in a hospital setting, including asking two nurses to put UV powder on their gloves and then carry out some routine activities in a ‘mock ward’.  Under UV light, all the places that were touched could be mapped. And it turned out that in a 4 minute bed chance, there are over 200 moments of touch! Emma’s research team have produced a video which encourages health professionals to ‘keep washing, keep caring’.

The final presentation before lunch included a gastronomical experience, where we were able to taste a number of fermented yeast products. Josh Evans, who will be coming to Oxford in the fall to commence his doctoral studies, talked about the relationship we have with microbes through food. He explained how fermentation can be understood as a collaboration between humans and microbes. Josh has been working at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen where some ‘convivial experiments’ relating to fermentation techniques are taking place between chefs and scientists (and microbes!) We were given two liquids to taste as well as a teaspoon of dark paste. Although some of us were a bit unsure about tasting these concoctions, they turned out to be rather interesting. (I especially liked the elder vinegar made from fermented elder berries).

After feeding ourselves (and our microbes) at lunch, we had an afternoon of presentations relating to aesthetic interactions between humans and microbes, and science and art, called ‘Microbial Sense-making’. Microbiologist Simon Park explained his interest in ‘microgeography’ which involves using a portable microscope to examine traces left behind of microbial and human interactions within urban environments. Simon has also worked with several artists, such as JoWOnder and Sarah Roberts, to produce microbial art. These artworks incorporate the activities of live bacteria into their creation.

Simon and artist Sarah Craske were then interviewed by Charlotte Sleigh to give us a window of understanding into the process behind producing a series of pieces called Metamorphoses. This intriguing project involved taking an antique (18thC) book and applying a range of scientific and artistic techniques to it. The interview revealed how exciting and truly interdisciplinary this type of project can be. It also revealed some anxieties during the creative process, such as deciding whether to move from non-destructive to destructive analysis of the book. The project also raised questions about the agency of bacteria, and also thinking about whether we can have an ‘ethical relationship’ with microbes.

The final presentation of the workshop was from Adam Bencard, who is a curator at the Copenhagen Medical Museum. Adam provided us with an overview of the preparations that went into a new exhibition called ‘Mind the Gut’ which considers the link between the gut microbiome and the mind. This exhibition has developed through an ‘experiment in co-curation’, involving a mix of artists and scientists, which involved a lengthy planning process over many months. The exhibition itself follows an untraditional format where different rooms are based around ‘action symbols’ or themes that reflect gut/brain relationships at different times. One of the aims of the exhibition is to display the body as ‘messy’ and complex, and to also demonstrate how science itself is an unfinished project. The exhibition will run for at least 3-4 years and is a must see for anyone travelling to Copenhagen!

This blog post was written by Carmen McLeod. Carmen is a social anthropologist currently based in the Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre. She is moving to University of Oxford in June 2017 to work on the Good Germs/Bad Germs project and the Oxford Interdisciplinary Microbiome Project (IMP).