Microbes are Beautiful

Scott Chimileski, research fellow at Harvard Medical School, shares his passion for communicating the value of microbes through photography. Scott discusses the book he is currently co-authoring with Roberto Kolter and he describes the exhibit he is designing for Harvard Museum of Natural History, both of which aim to communicate the beauty, history and power of microbes through engaging photography.


Scott Chimileski:

I want to, first of all, thank everybody here at New England BioLabs for the opportunity to tell you today about my passion for science and about the beauty of the microbial world, about the beauty of this world of all these organisms that are all around us that are too small for us to see.


I want to start this story here in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the United States. What makes it so very special, one of the reasons, is that it contains over half of the geothermal features on the entire planet. If we zoom in here to one of these geyser basins within Yellowstone, we see Grand Prismatic Spring. This is the largest hot spring in North America. The blue center of Grand Prismatic is boiling hot. The heat inside of Grand Prismatic, if we trace it down into the Earth, we'll first find some huge magma chambers, two of them actually, just a few kilometers below the surface. Below that, this heat in those magma chambers is actually derived from the actual core of the Earth. This is a truly special place on Earth where we can get a glimpse into what Earth looked like when it first formed and into what other planets might look like.


The edge of the Grand Prismatic spring where you see the brilliant oranges and yellows and reds, these are microbial mats formed by the only organisms that can live in this environment, thermophilic or heat-loving microbes. As beautiful as Grand Prismatic is during the day ... From this view, you can see all the tourists down there. I want to tell you about an experience that I had this past summer where I went on a microbial science photography expedition to Yellowstone with my brother who is there. That's his headlamp on the boardwalk. Here, all of the tourists are gone. We had all of Grand Prismatic and nearby Excelsior Geyser to ourselves. It's a really beautiful and special time and place to be at Grand Prismatic because it shows us the beauty and the mystery of the microbial world. Here, my brother is really looking out into this microbial cosmos or this microbial universe in front of him.


Many people fear microbes because of this mystery, because we can't see them, and because there are some microbes that harm us, but what I want to show you is all the different ways that microbes are beautiful and how the closer that we look and the more that we understand about microbes, actually, the more beauty that we discover. Here, at the edge of some of these hot springs, are microbial communities. These are stromatolites forming. We see even a closer up. This is like the smallest macro scale of these stromatolites. If we go inside of them, we can see this community of microbes that are locked into a very close syntrophic relationship with each other. This is not false color. This is actually just autofluorescence, so I shined some light on this community, and these pink cells are autofluorescing. These are cyanobacteria that are photosynthesizing and bringing energy into this community from the sun.


Zooming back out to see, again, Grand Prismatic during the day, it's certainly one of the best places to see the microbial world, but we can find this same beauty in the microbial world all around us on our own bodies, right here in the New England woods, and in our backyards. One of the reasons for this beauty is just the biodiversity of the microbial world. Almost all of the biodiversity on Earth is microbes.


If we look at one of these forests, this is nearby Walden Pond from that satellite image I just showed you, into this forest of ferns, and if we go down onto one of these surfaces on the microscopic film of water on top of one of these leaves, we can see more different types of cells and types of microbes than we can imagine. What's amazing about this scene is that, first of all, most of the microbes out in nature are not harmful whatsoever to humans and that, most of these, we don't know anything about them. Most bacteria in these natural environments, we can't grow them and cultivate them in the lab. It's truly a frontier in biology.


If we go back to the forest and we take one of these leaves off, and if I use it to make a print on top of a solid agar medium, we can get a sense ... Even though most of the microbes there will not grow, we can get a sense, from those that do grow, of the spatial patterns and these ecosystems within the ecosystems that we live within. All together, no matter where we look, in the soil, on the leaves, we'll find more diversity in colors, shapes, sizes, and patterns in the microbial world than in any other realm of biology.


Microbes are also beautiful when they cooperate. When they form these colonies or in this ... These are swarms, so this is a community of microbes on the move as they spread out across the surface and form these dendritic patterns, which is another example of this anastomosis, the branching pattern that we see everywhere in nature. There's also fixed communities that lock down in place, and these are called biofilm.


This is a little small piece of a biofilm from another organism you can find all around us. This is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It shows you this exquisite architecture of these colonies. Here, this is a static image, but this is a colony that develops over time in a true developmental process almost like you would think of a tissue from an animal. Here, we can see Pseudomonas aeruginosa forming a biofilm and growing over a few days in this time-lapse movie. You can see the wrinkles forming, which helps the cells to gain access to oxygen, and even the wrinkles start to merge with each other over time.


Microbes are beautiful because they contribute to our societies. One of the ways they contribute to our societies is they make a lot of our most delicious foods. This is blue cheese. If we go down into the microbial world within blue cheese, we see what I call these caves of Penicillium roqueforti. If we take the community from the rind of an aged cheese and we grow the microbes there in the lab, we can see a diversity of all of these different types of bacteria and fungi that are really forming an ecosystem right there on the rind of our cheese.


This is another food microbe, Aspergillus. That makes, for us, miso, and sake, and soy sauce, among other foods.


Microbes also make our medicines and invent biotechnologies that we can go out and find and adopt for our own use. These are two colonies of Actinobacteria. From this one group of bacteria, we have derived almost all of the antibiotics that we've come to use in the past 50 years, so these are like the medicine makers of biology.


This is a slime mold. This is a photo I took, actually, also near Walden Pond just a few weeks ago. This slime mold lives within the leaf litter in the forest. Usually, we don't see it, but you can see that it forms these networks. If we take it into the lab and do another time-lapse movie, you can see that these networks that Physarum is forming as it searches for food. It forms networks extremely efficiently, so it will find the closest, most efficient path between any two food sources. It's so efficient, this type of collective intelligence in this slime mold, that we actually look to the slime mold for clues on how to form our own networks because when we design a city, this is also an example of the same type of collective behavior, so we can learn all sorts of things from microbes.


Microbes are beautiful big and small. This is a really important point because, of course, we all think about microbes as these teeny, tiny cells, and they are, but actually, if we were floating in space and coming down upon the Earth, one of the very first signs of life that we would see is actually microbes. These aquamarine hazy patterns in the ocean, these are blooms of phytoplankton, so you're looking at trillions upon trillions of phytoplankton in the ocean. Again, ironic that one of the first signs of life that we could see on Earth from space is actually a microbe.


Microbes are really why we are here, and that's perhaps the most beautiful aspect of microbes. The cyanobacteria in the ocean, they create the oxygen that we breathe. They produce the ozone that protects all life and allowed animals to evolve, protects us from ultraviolet radiation. They're the very bottom level of the food web. Within every cell in our own bodies, we have the mitochondrion, which is an ancient bacterium, so really, we are like hybrids that have, indeed, some evolutionary history of microbes within us.


This really is truly the age of bacteria. As Stephen Jay Gould said, "As it was now in the beginning is now and ever shall be," and so what I'm doing is, by going out to places like Yellowstone and all over the world and by going right in the backyard and in the laboratory, capturing this beauty of the microbes world, and we're sharing it with the public here with an exhibit starting at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It should be open already one year from now. It's going to open in September 2017.


The idea is that these wonderful natural history museums contain, of course, mostly plants and animals. It makes sense that we are biased based on what we can see, but most of the natural history on Earth is microbial, so we're going to create this microbial life exhibit. My hope is that, through our efforts and other groups, that we can spread this across all natural history museums and have a strong presence for microbes in all natural history museums.


With that, I'd like to thank, once again, NEB for inviting me to talk and to accept this award. This is not work that I have done all by myself, so I want to thank, first and foremost, Roberto Kolter, who is my adviser and coauthor and partner in all of these endeavors, and also the Harvard Museum of Science & Culture, in particular the executive director Jane Pickering and the director of exhibitions, Janis Sacco. Thank you very much.

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