A few evenings ago I gave a “science pub” talk — part of a long-running series of public presentations that the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry runs at several sites in the state. (This was at a local pizza place, so thankfully I could just bike to it.)
I called the talk “Glimpses of Gut Microbes.” The beginning was a general introduction to the subject of the gut microbiota, but then I got to what I really wanted to convey: the field’s lack of understanding of the behaviors and dynamics of gut microbes, and my lab’s approach to addressing this. I motivated this by having people imagine a jungle, but with the constraint that one’s only information about the jungle was a list of species: leopards, monkeys, trees, elephants, etc. Imagine, I said, that we had no idea that trees are stationary, that monkeys can climb trees, that elephants cannot, that leopards want to eat monkeys, etc. Limited to our list of names, we would have a poor understanding of how the jungle ecosystem functions, and we wouldn’t be surprised if our predictions of things like the consequences of species extinctions or overpopulations were very crude, or even nonsensical. The situation with respect to our understanding of the gut microbial ecosystem is a bit like this — not quite so bad, but we really do lack insights into spatial distributions, dynamics, motility, fluctuations — “physical” features of gut constituents.
I then described my lab’s experimental approach of using zebrafish as a model organism to examine well-controlled gut communities, and building new types of microscopes to let us actually look at these communities. I spent a while on some of our recent experiments, in which we examined competition between two species of gut bacteria, and found that this competition is a consequence of the two species’ different responses to the mechanical motions of the intestine — an exciting story, the paper on which will appear in a few weeks in PLOS Biology. I tried to point out the limitations of this approach as well.
It’s always hard for me to tell how a talk is received. People seemed to like it — there were a lot of very good questions at the end, and one person at a café the next day came by and said she enjoyed the talk. It was probably less general than most talks of this kind, and less “splashy.” I didn’t want to give an overview of fun facts about the microbiota, or survey of news-worthy results, but rather a look at what actually goes into finding and setting out on a path of inquiry. I enjoyed it, though as is often the case with these sorts of things I wondered if it was worth the hours of preparation that went into it. It was the second Science Pub I’ve done — the other was in 2010, on very different topics. Stay tuned for my 2022 presentation!
… was one of my possibilities for a title slide illustration, and is meant to suggest two species of bacteria. My Advisory Committee pointed out that it looks too botanical, which it certainly does, since I based it off this one. I instead used this, which I drew the night before: