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Back to Bacteria

30 October 2018 | Rosa Johnston-Flint

They’re in us, on us, and all around us. Bacteria have been pretty much everywhere for some 3.8 billion years; now you can learn all about them at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. This formidable historic institution, home to 7 million specimens (bacteria population unknown) is friendly and welcoming, with signs that ask visitors to “please touch” the taxidermy animals – learning has never been less of a chore.

It's not often you walk into a place and can actually see the bacteria. But at Oxford’s Natural History Museum, it’s difficult not to notice the giant inflatable E. coli installation hanging from the vaulted glass roof, with its tentacle-like ‘fimbriae’ jabbing at the elegant, botanical carvings of the museum’s structure.
 
This is a place where arts and sciences fuse, in a building that was originally designed to unify the University’s science departments and provided a stage for the 1860 Oxford evolution debate, also known as the “Great Debate”, which took place after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. If you look carefully around the main space, you will notice that every column is made of different types of rock, all native to the British Isles – it is both practical and beautiful, with artistic design and science living harmoniously alongside one another.
 
So, where better to learn about the harmonious systems of bacteria? These symbiotic cell structures facilitate living processes across the planet, not least within the human body, which – gob-smackingly – contains just as many bacterial cells as human ones. Most people are aware of bacteria as a potential danger to health, particularly for the very young, old or unwell, but did you know that bacteria can catch viruses too?



The exhibition, which ranges from geological and deep-sea specimens to interactive touchscreens, offers an astonishing glimpse into the busy world of bacteria “communities” where bacterial behaviour is known to include communication, memory, swimming using nanoscopic motors, and weaponising against enemies. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “friendly bacteria”.
 
You don’t need to squint down a microscope to see some live examples for yourself either; there are (thankfully, sealed) cylinders of soil and pond water, demonstrating how different bacteria grow at different depths, forming a sludgy spectrum of layers.
 
Bacteria can be surprisingly beautiful up close as many of the images show, while Elin Thomas's embroidered Petri dishes give a dainty depiction of real-life growth samples taken from ordinary objects, like a house key or wedding ring.
 


The exhibition also looks at the role of bacteria in humanity’s future, from antibiotic resistance to tackling some of our biggest environmental problems. Bacteria in the oceans have evolved to consume certain types of human pollution, including oil-spills, like the one that happened after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s also new evidence showing that a bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis can produce an enzyme that eats plastic – an amazing evolution story that could become a vital tool in the fight against global pollution.
 
Our understanding of bacteria is constantly evolving, and this exhibition provides a snapshot of the latest theories and discoveries, running alongside an extensive events programme where you can learn from academics at the cutting edge of biochemistry. Events range from kid-focussed fun and games to fermented food cookery – and don’t miss their Party in a Petri Dish alternative Christmas party!
 
Find out more on the Oxford University Natural History Museum website, and you can read our interview with the Museum’s director, Professor Paul Smith, here.
 
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