The Vast Influence of the Wee Microbe

The Vast Influence of the Wee Microbe

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Yes, I know, we're all into Big these days, gaping at far galaxies via the Hubble telescope and, some of us anyway, stretching our imagination to the edge of the universe with Star Wars.

But there are worlds as Small as big is Big, and they can be just as exciting and even scary.

A new traveling exhibition, "Microbes: Invisible Invaders ... Amazing Allies," is on view at the Smithsonian International Gallery through September 6. Designed by BBH Exhibits of San Antonio, Texas, the show was brought to Washington as a feature of SITES, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. From here it goes to Chicago, one of the many stops on a five-year tour ending in 2003.

Covering 5,000 square feet and bubbling with interactive gadgets, the show aims to tell children (that's what it says, but I am learning a few things myself) that microbes are more than simply "germs," that they include viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa, and it delves into their history, which as far as most people are concerned means basically the history of disease.

As Smithsonian Provost J. Dennis O'Connor sees it, children would do well to learn more about this invisible world: "If we can capture their imaginations now, we ensure our supply of microbiologists for the next generation. At least we can get them to wash their hands more often."

There is a video game in which players fire antibiotic ammunition at bacteria. In another game, two computer microbes race to a finish line while the players maneuver them through simulated arteries in 3-D animation. Or players can steer oil-eating microbes as they gobble up an oil spill like Pac-Man.

A cartoon hero, Microbe Man, answers questions fired at him on a game show, and in a kitchen designed to look like a giant cartoon, microbes show how useful they can be, making bread rise and aging cheese.

There are also interactive displays featuring images from electron microscopes, plus a world map that points up, on demand, the places where various diseases occur.

This last was news to me. I knew that because of the widespread use of antibiotics some new strains of germs have learned to resist them. I knew tuberculosis was coming back after all this time. What I did not realize was that tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people a year, or that nearly two billion people worldwide have latent TB infection, a massive potential reservoir for the disease. Cholera recently infected tens of thousands of people during a rampage through more than ten countries in East Africa. Malaria still infects 275 million people yearly, resulting in a million deaths. And all of us know about AIDS and Ebola fever, new diseases that appeared to come out of nowhere.

I remember well when Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1955; before that, summertime and swimming pools made us all nervous, and a kid could frighten his parents to death by complaining of a stiff neck. By 1967 polio cases had dropped to 1,000, and we seemed to be conquering other viral diseases, from measles to influenza. Indeed, that year the Surgeon General predicted that infectious diseases were on the way to oblivion. But the new drug-resistant microbes, plus pollution and overcrowding as the world population increased (this country's population has doubled since I was in grade school 60 years ago), have got us worried again.


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