Mapping the invisible world of microbes with bees

How insects are helping a team of scientists and designers understand our microbial surroundings.

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Holobiont Urbanism

A new research and art project from MIT Media Lab, Holobiont Urbanism seeks to sample, sequence and visualise the microbial makeup of major cities around the world. Microorganisms or microbes are found everywhere, thriving in virtually all parts of the earth’s biosphere. Mapping these fascinating microbial environments has just become easier thanks to assistance from an unlikely source: bees.

Successfully charting city’s microbiome can have massive implications for public health. The nature of the environment in which we live affects our bodies, and changes in the surrounding ecosystem can trigger similar changes in our own. Experts even believe that insight into these invisible biomes may enable us to someday construct our built environment in harmony with its microbial surrounds. Until recently, scientists interested in mapping a city’s microbiome had to install sensors or sampling plates at various sites to gather the material needed for genetic sequencing. The problem with this method was that there was no way to consistently and reliably collect these samples – until the head of MIT’s Playful Systems group Kevin Slavin discovered bees to be the most efficient carriers. 

“Bees are really good at going out, gathering samples, and bringing them back every single day,” Slavin, an artist by training, told Wired. “If you use any other animal, you don’t necessarily know where they’re going to go.”

While bees hardly travel too far from their hive – no more than 2.4km away on average – their limited travels do bring them into contact with the surrounding microbes, which stick. In partnership with Weill Cornell Medical College’s Mason Lab, the Holobiont Urbanism team of designers, engineers and biologists developed a ‘metagenomics beehive’ – one that is able to catch and collect the debris that the bees gather on their trips. DNA extracted from this debris is subsequently sequenced to reveal its microbial contents before being mapped into a circular evolutionary tree.

Holobiont Urbanism

While the maps alone may not be able to tell us very much about the urban microbiome, it's resulting visuals are beautiful. “This is just using technology to create artistically valuable work,” confirms Argonne National Laboratory microbiologist Jack Gilbert. For Slavin, his main hope is that the project revitalises interest in the invisible world of microbes that surrounds us and urges us to better consider the relationship between our bodies and our urban environments.

Thus far, the beehives have been installed in New York City, Sydney, and Venice, and an art installation based on the resulting research debuted at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. The hive placed in Venice was also on display, encased in Plexiglas to ensure it's protected. 

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