The Power of Microbes:
Inside Artis Micropia
As I wandered the streets and canals of the “Venice of the North”, I couldn’t help but think about the health and well-being of its people. Amsterdam is known for its damp, chilly, and windy weather conditions. The city itself is quite compact as its real estate is severely limited by the city’s numerous waterways. People are (stylishly) living on top of one-another, which could be a cause for concern. Amsterdam was actually hit quite hard by the bubonic plague from 1663-1666. The plague, caused by a rod-shaped bacteria called Yersinia pestis, wiped out more than 10% of the city’s population!
Well, it seems that the Dutch have learned from their historical susceptibility to disease transmission. Introducing, Artis Micropia! Leave it to the citizens of Amsterdam to consider a microbial counterpart to their traditional zoo, Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo. Artis Micropia is the world’s only museum of its kind. Micropia’s website phrases its mission quite nicely: “They can save us or destroy us. Microbes: the smallest and most powerful organisms on our planet. We know very little about them, but can learn so much from them.”
Visitors to Micropia are warmly greeted by admissions staff wearing lab coats and protective eyewear. The flow of visitors is limited and timed because the exhibit is predominantly interactive. You enter the top level of Micropia and you find yourself surrounded by user friendly microscopes displaying all sorts of bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. Continuous high-speed footage of decomposing animals plays out on the ceilings and walls of the visitor space. I literally sat and watched sea lice devour a dead fish over and over again. It was awesome! I even completed a full body scan and learned about the different bacteria, paramecium, and mites that inhabit different sections of my body. I learned that humans are not as clean as they might think…
One of the most memorable parts of my visit to Micropia was the 15-minute lab talk with one of the facility’s lead lab scientists. Micropia employs numerous on-site microbiologists that specialize in topics ranging from green energy algae to preventing the next “super bug” pandemic. The talk that I attended focused on how to improve decomposition processes of farm/animal waste. It put my mind at ease to know that the Netherlands is developing new technologies and methods to combat the problem of excess nitrogen in soils and drinking water around the world. I prefer my water potable, thank you very much. The Hopper’s future event and experience room could be a perfect space to host small scientific talks like this!
The cherry on top of this particular tourist sundae came when I arrived back at my Airbnb. While exploring Artis Micropia, I couldn’t help but feel like an under-educated simpleton. I felt like I wasn’t understanding enough of the biological verbiage used in the exhibits. Did I really perform that poorly in high school biology class?? Luckily, the founders of Micropia foresaw this feeling of visitor inadequacy. The Micropia website actually includes a Microbiology from A-Z glossary on their website. The site profiles common microorganisms, Dutch (and other) prominent microbiologists, and offers concise explanations for common biological jargon. So, have no fear, the science glossary is here!
My finals days on the European continent were very well spent in Amsterdam. The city is one of the most magical places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The atmosphere is open and international. You get a sense that this Dutch city has seen a lot in its day. Having been a global power in its colonial hay day, The Kingdom of the Netherlands sounds, looks, and acts like a mature country sailing into a beautiful perpetual sunset. I’m glad that Amsterdam, with the help of Artis Micropia, is also taking the lead on the voyage into the world of microbiology.