The Vast Influence of the Wee Microbe

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.

Even more fascinating than the resurgence of various diseases are some of the new techniques researchers are working on to fight them, according to the folks at Pfizer, Inc, the firm that sponsored the exhibition.

The first synthetic drugs were produced by copying the chemical recipes of natural antibiotics. Today, researchers must work constantly to create new forms of antibiotics because microbes have the ability to evolve and become resistant to both the natural drugs and their synthetic cousins.

One technique that chemists are developing to outsmart the microbe involves treatment strategies based on genetic makeup. By studying the complete genetic blueprints of microbes, chemists can analyze the molecular processes the microbe needs to survive. Then they can produce an entirely new class of drugs—drugs targeting important processes the microbe has never had to defend before. Not surprisingly, these are being referred to as designer drugs.

Work is also being done on the link between bacteria and chronic diseases. I always thought that gastric ulcers, for example, were caused by bad diet and stress. But no, it seems that in most cases there is a bacterium that gets into the stomach lining and infects it, causing a lesion. Even atherosclerosis might be caused by yet another of these disagreeable little creatures. The latest thinking also implicates microbes in arthritis and cancer.

AIDS research has helped, as it explores the mysteries of the human immune system, for natural immunity has always been the best defense against microbes. It's rather like the way wars have given us new surgical techniques, if nothing else. To get back to the show: it covers a lot of ground. There is an Egyptian tomb containing a photograph of the face of Ramses V's mummy — unwrapped. One can plainly see pockmarks that indicate the virus that attacked Ramses; it apparently killed him around 1151 B.C. There is a copy of an Egyptian tablet showing the first pictorial record of polio. These diseases are not new to the human race.

In a different area we visit a catacomb below Paris, where a robotic figure wearing a beaked mask describes the Black Plague, which killed an estimated 56 million people, a third of Europe's population, in the 14th century. The mask, or something like it, was believed to protect against bubonic plague, which people thought came from poisonous gas in the earth. Actually, it was microbes. They lived in the fleas that rode around on rats, and thus spread to virtually every household on the Continent.

An Aztec ruin in the show displays replicas of those little clay figures the Aztecs loved to make, illustrating various diseases and malformations. Even Main Street comes in for treatment with a short video describing the discovery of penicillin in 1928. (Pfizer, to give it credit, pioneered in the mass production of penicillin in World War II. The firm's labs also developed terramycin, in 1950, and tetracycline, in 1962.) Also, we are treated to a series of holograms that present several noted microbes — Ebola and E. coli, for instance — as three-dimensional sculptures. Are they beautiful? Well ...

Maybe, but I am reminded that infectious diseases are still the leading cause of death in this world. Even as we fight off renewed attacks by diseases we thought we had licked, new ones develop. Lyme disease. AIDS. Ebola. Legionnaires' disease. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which I had never heard of but already is rampaging through 20 states.

It was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who first noted these wee "animalcules" in the microscope that he invented in 1683. It took another two centuries before people connected them to disease.

Let us hope that the scientists of the future who see this memorable show don't wait that long to tell us about their discoveries.

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