Microbial Universe

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This story by Phyllis Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

Microbes: Amazing Allies

They are so small, they can be seen only with a microscope

— and they are everywhere. A few million are moving around right

now in your mouth, while another billion or so in your stomach are

breaking down that breakfast bagel. They are microbes, the microorganisms

that are the gout in your gouda, the kick in your cabernet, the beneficial

bacteria in your blueberry yogurt. They are also the barbed bits of

H.I.V. virus that clamp onto cells and invade, and they are all centerstage

in a delightfully cautionary exhibit at the Liberty Science Center

in Jersey City, now through May 3.

Sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the exhibit has made LSC

the first of 15 American stops in a five-year tour that will take

the mighty microbes to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, the Smithsonian

in Washington, and the Buffalo Museum of Science — as if microbes

needed any help getting anywhere! Titled "Microbes: Invisible

Invaders, Amazing Allies," the exhibit presents a vivid, kid-pitched,

interactive narrative of both deadly microbial marauders and their

benevolent microscopic kin.

"Many museum exhibits present the big things, galaxies and dinosaurs,"

says Meghan Harrington of Pfizer. "This explores `inner space’

which is often overlooked — even though microbes have such an

impact on our bodies, our health, and our future."

Microbes are the oldest and smallest forms of life on earth. The simplest

among them are the viruses, balls of genes wrapped in shells that

inject themselves into other cells to reproduce. Bacteria are microbes,

though much bigger; protozoa are even larger one-celled predators

and parasites, and fungi — nature’s decomposers — round out

the microbe group. Though microbes have existed for billions of years,

they were not detected until 1683, when Dutch merchant Antony van

Leeuwenhoek, whose hobby was making microscopes, saw what he called

"wee animalcules" swimming through scrappings he’d taken off

his teeth. It would be another 200 years before scientists established

a relationship between microbes and disease.

All the while microbes continued to wreck havoc on humans. The first

several stops in the 5,000-square foot exhibit form a cook’s tour

of epidemics: a Paris crypt for victims of the bubonic plague that

killed three out of every four Europeans during the Middle Ages; the

Egyptian tomb of Ramses V, one of countless dead from smallpox; Aztec

ruins, a monument to the most lethal weapon in the European arsenal,

those diseases against which native Americans had no immunity; and

Main Street, North America, ravaged by polio, influenza, and tuberculosis

well into the 20th century. To children, the photographs of young

polio victims pressed into iron lungs will seem as remote as the Egyptian

mummies — but to parents among the first generation innoculated

with Salk’s vaccine, it is a sobering reminder of a scourge defeated

in our lifetimes.

Kids will enjoy the different X-rays that can be held up to screens,

but they probably won’t linger at the three-minute video detailing

the discovery of penicillin and the mass production of the "wonder

drug" during World War II. But it is a fascinating tale of how

a critical medical mystery was cracked, and well worth a stop.

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Microbial Universe

Then it is on to the Microbial Universe where holograms give a lurid

view of some names very much in the news: rubella, floating in the

air like a blue-red brain; the malevolent-looking cholera and E. coli

bacteria; H.I.V., resembling a boiled potato studded with peas, and

that familiar pain streptoccoccus, looking like an old fashioned doughnut.

Different samples can be slid under light microscopes, and there are

X-ray crystallography specimens that show how viruses are turned into

crystals and then shot with X-rays to record images on film —

a long way from van Leeuwenhoek’s "wee animalcules."

The Body of Disease section is a kids’ arcade with games

that illustrate how the human body fights off infections. Lines of

Defense football shows microbes being repelled by skin and hair; different

hands-on displays portray different defenses, from the battles waged

by white blood cells to the viruses sent sailing with a sneeze, while

"virtual" combat lets you beat back a microbe attack with

ping-pong paddles.

The whimsical "Pete’s Place" is a re-created apartment setting

complete with talking appliances that explain microbes’ many benefits:

the bread baking in the oven will rise because of yeast, and the refrigerator

is stocked with foods that microbes make possible. The trash can is

hooked up to a telephone with a message that explains how microbes

turn garbage into compost (and microbes in the soil convert nitrogen

into nutrients, allowing plants to grow), while the Gobble De Goop

video game has goop-munching microbes gobbling up oil spills.

In the Microbial Superhighway, visitors enter an airplane fuselage

to learn how modern transportation, overcrowding, and pollution now

foster the spread of infectious diseases. A world map illustrates

the sweep of ancient and emerging diseases; ebola is still confined

to central Africa while AIDS is a hot zone that covers the globe,

and the screen still lights up at New York and Los Angeles to show

the continuing presence of tuberculosis. The final section, the New

Frontiers 3-D video, animates advances in medical research, like gene

therapy and the ongoing development of synthetic drugs.

Along the way, the exhibit makes it very clear that catching flu from

Hong Kong chickens is only the latest microbe to jump from the animal

kingdom; tuberculosis, scientists believe, was first contracted from

cattle over 8,000 years ago. And while bubonic plague in Paris may

have succumbed to better hygiene and antibiotics, there are still

plagues for which there are no cures or vaccines. Microbes — and

the epidemics they cause — are not a thing of the past, as any

day’s headlines will attest. They continue to evolve, with infectious

diseases still the leading killer worldwide and, in aggregate, the

third leading cause of death in America.

`Microbes" is fun, engaging, and

kid-driven, with computer boxes to quiz your microbial knowledge of

the benign and the deadly. It comes complete with its own action figure,

Microbe Man, who figures in several of the computer games as well

as in a comic book with messages written in invisible ink. The "gross

factor" of microbes and their deadly deeds will make it a hit

with kids who clearly relish the macabre, while the many virtual,

animated, video, and hands-on displays not only pique children’s sense

of play but convey the real-time interactivity with which microbes

and humans are incessantly engaged.

"It demystifies disease by explaining exactly how diseases work,"

says Harrington, "showing that microbes not only cause illnesses

but treat them as well. Children get to see that microbes are the

active agent in penicillin as well as in ebola. The exhibit highlights

the importance of research and development, making it clear that drugs

just don’t appear because somebody had a good idea. Getting a drug

to market takes about a dozen years, and understanding that process

will give people a better perspective on the realities of fighting


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Company Sponsorship

With Pfizer as sponsor, pharmaceutical research — on which pharmaceutical

companies spend billions of dollars a year — also plays an important

part in the exhibit. The role of medical research is cast as one of

discovery and exploration, as compelling as the race into space —

and much more essential. Learning the agents and mechanics of disease,

tracking how diseases are produced and transmitted, determining the

most effective among thousands of pharmaceutical compounds — these

are important stories, narrated through state-of-the-art animation

and special effects. The games reveal how science unlocks microscopic

secrets, striving now to re-engineer the tiny organisms at the bottom

of the food chain that can topple those at the top.

"It is an interactive exploration, designed to increase kids’

comfort level with science and technology," says Dr. Randall Kaye,

head of pediatrics at Pfizer. "They are the scientists of the


More than 4 million visitors have visited LSC since it opened in 1993.

It offers over 250 hands-on exhibits devoted to informal science and

technology education, with different floors devoted to Inventions,

Health, and the Environment, and the nation’s largest IMAX theater.

There are permanent displays and playrooms for children of all ages,

as well as visiting exhibits. The cafeteria has a spectacular view

of the Manhattan skyline, and with the entrance to the Holland Tunnel

and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries just blocks away,

LSC can be a fun day of science or part of a more comprehensive "I

Love New York" family trip.

— Phyllis B. Maguire

Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies, Liberty

Science Center , Jersey City, 201-200-1000. To May 3. Tuesday to

Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., September to March 31. Open daily,

(9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., April 1 to September 7. Admission to exhibits

only, $9.50 adults; $8.50 students & seniors; $6.50 children 12 and

under. Premium admission to exhibit, Omni theater, and 3-D Laser show:

$15 adults; $13 students & seniors; $11 children. Parking $5.

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