The Challenge

Microbes are the foundation upon which life on Earth depends: they set the boundaries of habitability for all plants and animals and create half of the oxygen we breathe. Ocean-dwelling microbes regulate the global climate and could hold the secrets to the origin of life. Put simply, we wouldn’t be here without microbes, yet most people don't realize how pervasive and important they are.

This project will overcome this concerning knowledge gap by building an emotional bridge. Microscopic creatures are, by definition, typically hidden from view, and the challenge of seeing them and perceiving their importance prevents emotional involvement and investment. This is a major problem, as a failure to understand and connect with this hidden operating system of our planet leaves us unlikely to protect it and vulnerable to its collapse. Our sustainable use of food, power, and material resources, as well as the maintenance of thriving ecosystems, depends, in many ways, on building a deeper appreciation for microbial communities. 

The Approach

We will develop an immersive, multisensory experience around cutting-edge scientific discoveries, inviting visitors – “Micronauts” – on a journey into the dynamic world of ocean microbes. In a designated space (~16m x 8m floor area), micronauts will first see videos based around the Sippewissett marsh on Cape Cod, a coastal environment that embodies the physical border between land-dwelling humans and the vast open ocean. Aerial videography shows the regional context, and through a series of visual storytelling devices, we shift our focus to tidal pools, submerging beneath the water to reveal riotous colors of microbial mats atop the sand. We then burrow into the sediment, squirming between grains of quartz and fool’s gold as saltwater courses through tiny pore spaces.

Now at the microscale, our attention shifts to the floor, which lights up to reveal an enormous platform of alien beings. These are the microorganisms of Sippewissett, frantically going about their daily business of finding food, reproducing, transforming chemicals, and breathing metals. The floor projection is responsive, and as we fight or flee, the microbial community responds. Over time, the floor transforms, revealing new ways of seeing this bizarre microuniverse. A dense network of multicolored dots shows the diversity of different organisms on this grain of sand, while pastel splotches indicate the types of minerals. Wisps of color show the chemicals being transformed, like the stream of headlights on a highway, and glowing pulses point us toward energy sources. Finally, abstract shapes sweep over the floor as artistic interpretations capture less tangible aspects of the microbial universe we’ve just discovered: the feelings of this chaotic, dynamic new world of immense possibility.

As we zoom out, Micronauts are handed a small, pill-size capsule of tan sediment – this is the world they just experienced. If such complexity and dynamism was present in this tiny slice of the marine microbial world, just imagine what else is out there…

Throughout the journey, Micronauts will hear customized soundscapes ranging from music to sonified data, reflecting DNA sequences, localized diversity, or metabolic reactions. Micronauts will experience the microbial world through several different lenses and gain an intuitive, visceral sense of different microbes’ “personalities” and behaviors. All visual, auditory, and scientific data products will live in perpetuity on a web-based platform. 

The Micronaut journey will be the first production of its kind, using innovative techniques and rigorous science to link the intellectual profundity of the microbial world with the emotional resonance of an embodied, interactive experience. The input data will come from on-going cutting-edge scientific work addressing fundamental questions of how microbial communities are structured and how they interact. The experience will incorporate high-speed video, fluorescence in situ hybridization microscopy, high-throughput DNA sequencing, scanning electron microscopy, and reaction transport metabolic models of microbial communities. Data sonification and visual media will develop creative new approaches to presenting microbiological information.

Ultimately, this work will enable a better understanding of the ocean through its microbial foundation and connect visitors with that process of discovery in an innovative way, revealing a vibrant world they never knew existed.

Unknowns

The specific location. While the precise site for the display is unclear, the modular nature of our products (projections, headphones) will allow for substantial flexibility.

Data products. Many of the tools to generate the raw data are established, but combining them and deploying them in the marine sediment environment specified here would be a novel capability. While this represents a small risk, it is also an opportunity that makes this project particularly transformational for both the public and the scientific community.

Resources

We have:

  1. A motivated team with pre-existing funding sources and a diverse set of talents

  2. Access to the field site

  3. Drone and camera equipment

  4. Advanced scientific instruments and decades of technical expertise

  5. Professional artists experienced in working with the natural world and marine settings

  6. Data visualization experts

  7. Genomics analysts      

  8. Leveraged support from several funding sources

Timeline

May – June: collect samples, field-based video and imagery

July – August: sequence and image microbial communities; develop primary art products

September – October: synthesize, sonify, visualize data; incorporate into responsive projection platform

November: site test and deploy exhibit at the National Ocean Exploration Forum

Beyond: provide data and materials to museums around the world; build online platform to house already collected and future data

Team

(Team Member: Relevant Skillset; Affiliation)

Mark Adams: Painting, cartography; National Park Service

Benjamin Bray: Geospatial apps development; MIT Sea Grant

Keith Ellenbogen: Drone videography, underwater photography; MIT Sea Grant

Raquel Fornasaro: Installation development; Fornasaro Contemporary Art

Peter Girguis: Microbial physiology, biogeochemistry; Professor, Harvard University

Alan Leonardi: Experience design assistance; Director of Ocean Exploration and Research, NOAA

Jeffrey Marlow: Project management, microscopy, microbial metabolism; National Geographic Explorer, Postdoctoral Scholar, Harvard University

Craig McLean: Genomics analysis; PhD Student, MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Devora Najjar: Genomics analysis; Research Assistant, MIT Media Lab

Susan Poulton: Immersive storytelling; Chief Digital Officer, The Franklin Institute

Caroline Rozendo: Data visualization, interaction design; MIT Media Lab