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Meet the microscopic life in your home— and on your face - Anne Madden

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We live in homes with over 100,000 microscopic species, each with its own set of unique traits and capabilities. While a few of these species cause disease, most do not. Can humans harness these microbial capabilities to create beneficial applications and new technology? According to microbiologist Anne Madden, these microscopic alchemists aren't gross— they're the future.

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We live in a biological cosmos. Our planet has over a trillion unique microscopic species. Yet remain unknown. It is estimated that at least 90% of microscopic species are yet to be discovered. They are mysteries, even though some of these species live no farther way than inside our mouths.

We may only have characterized 10% of the microscopic species on Earth, but those we do know about help us in nearly infinite ways. It is from microbes that live in some of the saltiest locations in the world that we learned how to edit genomes using CRISPR technology.

Microbes in hot springs helped us develop PCR technology, the technology used to help us detect diseases. Microbes from soils, fruit, and grains gave us textile dyes, cosmetic additives, vitamins, bioinoculants that help crops grow, antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering medications, laundry detergents, donuts, alcohol, fuel, pet heartworm prevention medication, and so many, many, many more technologies. We have harnessed the power of these creatures to create products and services worth over 300 billion dollars (USD). But as anyone who has had their life saved by an antibiotic can tell you, these applications are truly priceless.

Learn more about microbiologist Anne Madden's adventures using wasps to hunt for beer-making yeast in this visual journalism piece

Watch this PBS News Hour special, read this scientific article, or visit her website to find out why Madden was looking for yeasts in wasps and how these yeasts are now helping the brewing industry produce new flavors while using less resources.

To find more resources on microbiology, visit The Microbe Institute.

For a colorful approach to investigating the microbes around us, learn about the Microbe Crayon Project. This project features open-source crayon labels to help you learn about the microbes that not only produce beautiful pigments, but other applications as well. 

To see the fungal microbial world come alive from the security of your couch, check out the award-winning science documentary, “The Kingdom: How fungi made our world.” 

For a list of commercial breweries where you can find the “wasp beer” and other fermented beverages mentioned in film, visit Lachancea.

To find out how you can use evidence-based science communication practices—and fashion—to creatively engage the world with microbes, check out the Microbe Hat Project

Travel to other parts of the world with an interactive map to see the microorganisms we found in sourdoughs collected from across the globe. For an at home science project on sourdough, visit here.

For immersive augmented-reality animations of over 37 microbes in our world, visit the Community of Microbes online exhibit- created by Anne Madden, Leonora Shell, and former TED Fellow Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, and download the free app (available in the app store or the website). Then you merely need to point your phone at the colorful images to explore the habitats of squid, plants, our mouths, and even the subway. Along the colorful journey you’ll meet some of the microbes that make delicious cheeses, those that hunt their microbial prey, and those that help a squid glow. Check out the various links in each habitat for videos of live microbes, more videos, and research you can help participate in.

Watch these recommended TED-Ed Lessons:

You are your microbes
From the microbes in our stomachs to the ones on our teeth, we are homes to millions of unique and diverse communities which help our bodies function. Jessica Green and Karen Guillemin emphasize the importance of understanding the many organisms that make up each and every organism.

The microbial jungles all over the place (and you)
As we walk through our daily environments, we’re surrounded by exotic creatures that are too small to see with the naked eye. We usually imagine these microscopic organisms, or microbes, as asocial cells that float around by themselves. But, in reality, microbes gather by the millions to form vast communities. Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter describes how and why microbes create biofilms.

How the food you eat affects your gut
The bacteria in our guts can break down food the body can’t digest, produce important nutrients, regulate the immune system, and protect against harmful germs. And while we can’t control all the factors that go into maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we eat. Shilpa Ravella shares the best foods for a healthy gut.

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TED Talk Lessons are created by TED-Ed using phenomenal TED Talks. Do you have an idea for a lesson? Create it now using any video from YouTube »

Meet The Creators

  • Speaker Anne Madden