Infectious: Stay Away
An interactive exhibition in Ireland gives visitors a front row seat to the science behind epidemics
An imposing hazard sign greets visitors approaching the east entrance to Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in Ireland: "__INFECTIOUS: STAY AWAY__." The warning does not appear to be working. In its first month on view, more than 20,000 people visited the linkurl:Science Gallery;http://www.sciencegallery.com/ in TCD to see linkurl:Cliona O'Farrelly;http://www.ucd.ie/medicine/research/staff/ofarrelly/bio.htm and linkurl:Luke O'Neill's;http://www.tcd.ie/Biochemistry/research/l_o_neill.php free immunology exhibition -- an interactive collection of all things infectious, alarming and down right icky. On a summer day, I visit the exhibit, and I'm accompanied by about 20-30 other visitors, mainly adults with a handful of school kids.
"__Infectious__ is more an experience than an education," explains Professor O'Farrelly, a TCD immunologist and co-creator of __Infectious__. "The exhibition allows the public to explore important mechanisms in immunology such as pathogen detection, replication, transmission, resistance and clearing."
"People feel alienated by science because the vocabulary has become increasingly complex, but many things can be explained simply," says O'Farrelly. These concepts are represented by a carefully constructed sequence of exhibits that blend complex science with visual art. "We want the public to leave __Infectious__ with a basic understanding of important immunological concepts".
__Photos by Patrick Bolger__
At the entrance, I'm greeted by a team in outbreak gear -- full overalls and face masks -- who insist that I proceed into the decontamination zone. Here, I'm screened and electronically tagged to monitor my infection status throughout my visit. This jarring introduction is perhaps one of the most innovative ideas in __Infectious__ -- the world's first simulation of a live epidemic. The electronic sensor around my neck can communicate and infect other sensors when in close proximity, and by periodically infecting a random visitor with an "electronic virus," the exhibition curators can monitor the spread of that virus as it infects the influx of visitors.
As I navigate through __Infectious__, I find a lab bench with several microscopes inviting me to get up close and personal with parasites, bacteria and the bioterrorist's favourite, anthrax. Nearby, a mosaic of Petri dishes lines the wall, each having being kissed by a visitor over the weeks since __Infectious__ opened. A multitude of microorganisms grow in the dishes, some conforming to the outline of lips. I admit, this particular part of the exhibition makes me think twice about being amorous ever again.
Suddenly the red light on my electronic tag begins flashing. I have become infected. I give a suspicious glance to the person next to me and make my way to the disinfection station, where an animation representing each visitor and their role in the spread of the virus plays. I stare at this real-time visualisation of the infection kinetics as the ease with which viruses can spread through a crowd hits home.
"The tags also simulate resistance," as some people will notice they remain uninfected throughout their whole visit, says O'Farrelly. "This links directly with one of the exhibits where visitors are encouraged to give a DNA sample, which they extract themselves."
The samples, which visitors harvest from their saliva, are screened for polymorphisms in Mal, an adaptor protein which binds to TLR4, the receptor for Gram-negative bacterial cell wall component lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Following recognition of LPS, TLR4 recruits Mal and an intracellular signalling cascade is activated resulting in the production of important proinflammatory cytokines. Polymorphisms in the Mal gene are known to be associated with increased susceptibility to diseases such as malaria. TCD researchers will compile the results from the __Infectious__ volunteers for a publication on the ratios of these polymorphisms in the Irish population.
Other installations in __Infectious__ allow the visitor to simulate their own epidemic and view the spread through a population or even create a new strain of influenza to infect the world. The similarities to the current swine flu situation are hard to ignore but are entirely coincidental, according to Don Pohlman, the Science Gallery Exhibition Manager.
"The ideas were developed before the outbreak of swine flu, but the media attention has probably resulted in increased interest in the exhibition," says Pohlman. The warning banner and the mock decontamination process at the entrance to __Infectious__ is akin to what might be expected were a viral epidemic to become a reality, he explains. "With the hazard signs and intimidating screening process, we are trying to create an atmosphere of confusion and paranoia, because not everything is fully explained to the visitor at the entrance."
One of the more abstract themes that the creators of __Infectious__ explore is the concept that mechanisms involved in the detection, transmission, and clearing of viruses parallel human behaviour. Viral transmission can mirror the spread of panic or information through a population, for example. Quirky ideas, gossip and fashion trends mutate, replicate and eventually disperse in much the same way as a viral epidemic. Indeed, on reading this article, you can now become a part of this process. Spread the word.
__Rowan Higgs has a BSc in Pharmacology and a PhD in Molecular Immunology from University College Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where his research focus is on the regulation of innate immune pathways that contribute to autoimmunity.__
linkurl:__Infectious: Stay Away__;;http://www.sciencegallery.com/infectious will be on view at the Science Gallery, TCD until July 17th.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Experiments in Epidemiology ;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55705/
[June 2009]*linkurl:Journals speed up flu studies;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55686/
[11th May 2009]*linkurl:New HHS head takes on swine flu;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55668/
[29th April 2009]