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Gut feeling: a science communication initiative

E coli bacteria

This April, the British Society for Immunology supported the event ‘Gut Feeling’ at the Edinburgh International Science Festival through our Communicating Immunology grant scheme.  Here, event chair Adam Hart tells us more about the session and why bacteria can be a useful science communication tool.

Bacteria are sometimes considered a hard-sell in the world of science communication and it must be said this is not without reason. The list of things working against them is considerable: they are very small; they lack charisma (I’m sorry, but they do); some of them cause some pretty horrific diseases; and they aren’t particularly visually appealing. Whilst all these things are true to some extent, we should not give up hope. The key to engaging people with bacteria in my opinion is to major on just how good they are at doing ‘bacterial things’, just how neat many of those things are, and just how important bacteria are to pretty much everything on the planet. And of course, appealing to an audience’s natural sense of introspection doesn’t hurt. There’s nothing like the realisation that something directly affects your health and well-being to make you pay attention.

The gut microbiota revolution that has been fomenting, and fermenting for that matter, for the last few years is exactly what’s been needed to turn people on to the wonders of the prokaryotic world. Following up on a successful Cheltenham Science Festival event, I found myself at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April to chair a session focussing on gut bacteria and their relationships with our health, supported by the BSI’s Communicating Immunology grant scheme. As in Cheltenham, the main speakers were Professor Fiona Powrie and Dr Lindsay Hall and once again the event was a sell-out.

Lindsay kicked off proceedings with a brilliant exposition of bacterial biology in general and the human microbiota in particular. With a simple but clever demonstration involving 3 kilograms of sugar and some hastily bought trays (thank you Argos), the smallness and abundance of our bacterial passengers were brought to life. A variety of plates from a willing volunteer back at Lindsay’s lab allowed the audience to see first-hand some bacterial colonies and to appreciate the human body as a complex, structured and surprising ecosystem. Many people, even those attending science festival events, have a limited knowledge of bacteria and Lindsay’s whistle-stop tour of both the basics and the cutting edge (not-yet-for-sale sequencers the size of a pen drive anyone?) brought everyone up to speed in a lively and engaging way.

Fiona then took up the reins, delving into the relationships between our gut microbiota and our immune system. With a careful mix of facts, cartoons and analogies Fiona guided a receptive audience through a frankly remarkable maze of connections and complexity. As well as inflammatory bowel disease and other inflammation-linked conditions, Fiona introduced us to the latest ideas on the relationships between microbiota, immunity and cancer. Throw in a little obesity and mental health and the audience were left in no doubt as to the scope and range of the work currently being undertaken.

A packed audience in Edinburgh

A packed audience in Edinburgh

Events such as these can often stand or fall on the quality of audience participation. Having had an incredibly enthusiastic crowd in Cheltenham I had requested, and got, a 90-minute slot for ‘Gut Feeling’, with the last 30 minutes reserved solely for audience questions. The audience did not disappoint, with a host of fascinating and insightful questions exploring diet, faecal transplants, probiotics, antibiotics and the next 5–10 years of research among many other topics.

What events such as ‘Gut Feeling’ show is that with the right platform bacteria allow you to smuggle an awful lot of science in to your science communication activities! As well as bacteriology we covered, albeit not always with equal depth, immunology, anatomy, oncology, ecology, neurology, digestion, endocrinology, histology and histopathology. Bacteria might not have the immediate charisma of, say, meerkats or honeybees, but they certainly make up for it in surprising and interesting science.

Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication, University of Gloucestershire

Adam is author of the book ‘The Life of Poo’.

More information on the BSI’s Communicating Immunology grants is available on our website.

Image credits: E.coli bacteria from NIAID (CC-BY-2.0); audience image © Adam Hart