NEB TV Ep. 19 - The Wonder of Microbes

Take a trip with us to the Harvard Museum of Natural History for a behind the scenes tour of Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter’s photographic journey into the microbial world.

Script

Deana Martin: 

Welcome to NEB TV. Today we'll be taking a trip down to the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, where we will meet up with Scott Chimileski, who is one of our Passion in Science winners and Roberto Kolter. They we will be giving my good friend, Lydia Morrison a tour of their exhibit, which is entitled, World in a Drop: Photographic Explorations of Microbial Life. Let's take a look.

 

Scientists behind the microscope

 

Roberto Kolter:

Today's a very exciting day for us because we are going to have an event, which is part of the launching of our book, Life at the Edge of Sight.

 

Scott Chimileski:

Along with that, we're also celebrating the opening of our new exhibit on microbes, here at the Harvard Museum of Natural History; which is called, World in a Drop.

 

Roberto Kolter:

And the ... it's constituting a lecture and then there's going to be a reception here in the museum, where the people can see the exhibits in the various galleries. It's an open night at the museum.

 

What are your favorite microbes?

 

Scott Chimileski:

This is one of my favorite images because it shows the principle that, though bacteria are single-cell organisms, they often come together in communities in large numbers. So this biofilm that we're looking at here is actually about the size of a dime. What I've done with ... to produce this image, is take many different photographs across the colony with a macro lens and then stitched those images together to create a super resolution image, allowing us to print it this big.

 

One difference between this image and the last one we looked at is that, whereas that last biofilm was grown in the laboratory, this is actually happening right out in nature. This is from the forest near Walden Pond, and this is a slime mold that is sometimes, during part of its life cycle, completely invisible and then when the conditions are right it continues its life cycle and enters into this macroscopic plasmodium stage. Where it is out on the hunt for bacteria and fungi to eat. It's actually really interesting because it's a semi-intelligent organism, meaning that it can make decisions and solve mazes and it shows all these complex behaviors that you wouldn't ordinarily think a microbe can do.

 

Roberto Kolter:

Hi, I'm gonna be telling you about a particular organism and one of my favorite microbes. It's traditionally known as Koji. It's a fungus Aspergillus Oryzae. I love it because it's what's used to making sake, making soy sauce. It's fermented products that end up being eaten all over the world. So, this is Aspergillus Oryzae growing at very early stage in its growth so you see filaments and you see already some of the area structures as this fungus begins to grow upwards. And now we're seeing it much later in it's life cycle.

 

It's growing on rice grains and what we are seeing here is a small filaments that we could see in the prior picture are now these long filaments and they have these little balls on the top; which is where the spores are forming. And these are pigmented and this is going to be the way this organisms disperses. It makes spores and they can fly with the wind and find new places where they can grow again. It's a little bit like seeing first the caterpillar and then the butterfly; major change in it's morphology. And now what we are seeing is using microscopy. We've taken one of those little tufts of spores that we saw before at the tips of the filaments and we've sliced it and we're looking through it.

 

We're staining it so we see now all of the spores that are disseminating at the surface of this sphere. And this is us now using what we call thin sectioning and microscopy and in addition we are staining the sample.

 

What drew you to blend art and science?

 

Scott Chimileski:

I think I've been blending art and science for my whole life even before I knew what art and science were. So, when I was very young I was not a biologist yet because I didn't know what biology was but I had a pond nearby my parents' house. And I would go to the pond and I would collect fish and frogs and all sorts of creatures like that. And that evolved into my career track as a scientist, as a biologist but, meanwhile I was always enjoying art as well. For example, in sixth grade my home room teacher sort of commissioned me to paint a mural outside of the classroom of a neuron.

 

Roberto Kolter:

Why is it that today's scientist tend to not blend art? And why is it that artist don't blend science? And if you think about the history of science art has always been a part of science. Look at the instruments the way they were made in the 18th, 19th century. They always art around them. Look at Da Vinci.

 

Scott Chimileski:

So, going all the way back to that giant neuron mural on the wall was really the first time that I officially blended art and science but I really been doing it I think all along; even before I knew that was something to do.

 

Roberto Kolter:

I feel in my own experience that through showing people something that is beautiful you can inspire in them curiosity. They want to understand it and questions arise naturally. And therefore to communicate science through something that is beautiful, meaning artistic, is the natural way to do it.

 

Visit hmnh.harvard.edu for additional information on the exhibit

 

Deana Martin:

If you're interested in learning more about the exhibit you can find more information on the Harvard Museum of Natural History's website. Thanks so much for joining us today. And as always if you have any suggestions for future episodes please let us know.

 

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