Intes­tine with charm — on the trail of the excep­tion­al organ

The best­seller “Gut with Charm” by Giu­lia and Jill Enders takes a blunt and humor­ous look at human diges­tion. On Decem­ber 4, the spe­cial exhi­bi­tion of the same name start­ed at exper­i­men­ta; it can be seen for the first time in Ger­many. Until May 01, 2022, the pub­lic can embark on a curi­ous jour­ney through the human body. 

For health, the immune sys­tem and well-being, the intes­tine plays a very impor­tant role. With the vari­ety of microor­gan­isms that live here, each person’s intes­tine is as unique as his or her fin­ger­print. Despite this, the organ received lit­tle atten­tion for a long time. This has changed with the best­seller “Gut with Charm” by Giu­lia and Jill Enders, whose book has made an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to chang­ing the image of the gut from an under­es­ti­mat­ed to an excep­tion­al organ.

An under­es­ti­mat­ed organ comes into focus

At the exhi­bi­tion “Gut with Charm. The curi­ous world in the gut,” vis­i­tors learn more about the long-neglect­ed organ. The sis­ters Giu­lia and Jill Enders were direct­ly involved in the con­cep­tion. While the tex­tu­al accom­pa­ni­ment comes from the pen of Giu­lia Enders, the draw­ings by Jill Enders — as already in the book — take on the main cre­ative role. The result is an edu­ca­tion­al as well as enter­tain­ing jour­ney through the inner work­ings of the human being along the ques­tion of what hap­pens as soon as food enters the body. “Good sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion is free of fear or shame. That was always impor­tant to us — also when accom­pa­ny­ing the exhi­bi­tion,” Giu­lia Enders describes her inten­tion. “See­ing the book come to life in the Sci­ence Cen­ter, becom­ing touch­able and three-dimen­sion­al, was very appeal­ing to us,” adds Jill Enders.

The exhi­bi­tion is divid­ed into three sec­tions: The first part is a Tour through the diges­tionThe first part of the course presents the diges­tive organs and their func­tions — from the mouth to the anus. The sec­ond part focus­es on the World of microbesThe third major top­ic area is micro­bi­ol­o­gy, i.e. the total­i­ty of all microor­gan­isms in the intes­tine. The third major top­ic area is the Well­be­ing of the intes­tine and shows ways to pre­serve the per­son­al micro­bio­me, also known as gut flo­ra, and improve dai­ly eat­ing habits.

On an area of around 750 square meters, numer­ous hands-on sta­tions alter­nate with films; real organs can be seen as well as mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) images. The exhi­bi­tion was devel­oped by the Cité des sci­ences et de l’in­dus­trie in Paris in coop­er­a­tion with the Finnish Sci­ence Cen­ter Heure­ka and the Pavil­hão do Con­hec­i­men­to — Ciên­cia Viva tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence muse­um in Lisbon.

Into the diges­tive tract!

At the entrance to the exhi­bi­tion, a giant mouth “swal­lows” the audi­ence, which from here embarks on a voy­age of dis­cov­ery through the diges­tive tract. Where exact­ly does the esoph­a­gus run, where are the stom­ach, large intes­tine and small intes­tine locat­ed in the abdomen? With the help of two head­less sil­hou­ettes, both adults and chil­dren can see where the organs are locat­ed. Two films tak­en with MRI and by X‑ray pro­vide fas­ci­nat­ing real-time insights into the diges­tive process. A true mir­a­cle elixir is hid­den in an old apothecary’s cab­i­net: sali­va. Humans pro­duce one liter of spit per day. Sali­va not only plays an impor­tant role in food intake and diges­tion. In “Intestines with Charm,” young and old learn about its oth­er super­pow­ers and the rea­son why it’s eas­i­er to burp when you’re lying on your left side.

Direct expe­ri­ence plays an impor­tant role in the exhi­bi­tion: On an inter­ac­tive wall, vis­i­tors can trig­ger a food aller­gy or observe what hap­pens in the mouth and intestines — from chew­ing to excre­tion — when feed­ing a fig­ure. To mar­vel at is a rope that depicts the large and small intestines in their com­plete length and makes their dimen­sions vis­i­ble when they are unrolled. Final­ly, in the toi­let, every­thing is a ques­tion of pos­ture. You can find out what the ide­al posi­tion is by sit­ting in the toi­let cubi­cle. With­out shame, but with a lot of charm and in the usu­al humor­ous tone of the Enders sis­ters, the exhi­bi­tion explains the mech­a­nism of the sphinc­ter mus­cles. The dif­fer­ent forms of defe­ca­tion are not con­cealed either. After all, shape, col­or and con­sis­ten­cy pro­vide a lot of use­ful infor­ma­tion about our diges­tion and pos­si­ble diseases.

Small but mighty: bac­te­ria in the gut 

The sec­ond part of the exhi­bi­tion focus­es on tiny crea­tures with­out which diges­tion would not be pos­si­ble: bac­te­ria. Togeth­er with virus­es, yeasts and fun­gi, they form the micro­bio­me, bet­ter known as the intesti­nal flo­ra. This not only process­es food, but also com­mu­ni­cates with the brain as well as the immune and ner­vous sys­tems and ensures a healthy bal­ance in the body. In a room mod­eled on the intesti­nal wall, the audi­ence is immersed in this unique microcosm.

Dif­fer­ent intesti­nal bac­te­ria intro­duce them­selves on an inter­ac­tive screen. They tell their sto­ry and whether they take on a good or evil role — or even both — in the human body. The micro­bio­me table invites vis­i­tors to learn amaz­ing num­bers: It’s hard to imag­ine that there are more bac­te­ria in just a sin­gle gram of excre­ment than there are peo­ple liv­ing on Earth. Vis­i­tors can learn how dif­fer­ent microor­gan­isms are in terms of size, col­or, shape and com­po­si­tion with the help of hands-on models.

Much of what is known about the intes­tine and its tiny inhab­i­tants is thanks to sci­ence. But how do researchers arrive at their find­ings? Var­i­ous instru­ments and sim­pli­fied research pro­to­cols are pre­sent­ed in an exhi­bi­tion lab­o­ra­to­ry. Any­one who wants to can slip into the role of researcher them­selves in the exhi­bi­tion section.

Of clean­li­ness and good bacteria

Although the intes­tine and its micro­bio­me still hold many secrets, sci­ence agrees on one thing: well-being, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, is strong­ly depen­dent on a healthy intes­tine. In the last part of the exhi­bi­tion, vis­i­tors are there­fore giv­en valu­able tips on how to keep their intesti­nal flo­ra in bal­ance and how to main­tain it by eat­ing cer­tain foods. In a mul­ti­me­dia game, vis­i­tors can “shop” for var­i­ous foods and find out how much dietary fiber they con­tain. Fiber, as found in whole grains, fruits and veg­eta­bles, strength­ens and pro­tects the micro­bio­me. At anoth­er sta­tion, the audi­ence will get prac­ti­cal advice on how to clean wise­ly. After all, exces­sive hygiene reduces the ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­r­i­al bio­di­ver­si­ty that sur­rounds and pro­tects us everywhere.

Each person’s micro­bio­me is unique. But when does the micro­bio­me devel­op in the body? How does it change and why? A film made espe­cial­ly for the exhi­bi­tion pro­vides infor­ma­tion. Anoth­er film looks at new med­ical research and shows how peo­ple can be helped whose micro­bio­me is severe­ly dam­aged or weak­ened. Even though a lot of research is still need­ed here, it becomes clear what heal­ing pow­ers the bac­te­ria in the gut have and what could be pos­si­ble in the future with their help.

What role do bac­te­ria in the intes­tine play in chron­ic dis­eases such as Crohn’s dis­ease or the devel­op­ment of can­cer? Nutri­tion­ist Prof. Dr. Dirk Haller is inves­ti­gat­ing this ques­tion in his research. At the Robert May­er Lec­ture on Feb­ru­ary 15, 2022 at 7:30 p.m., the pro­fes­sor of nutri­tion and immunol­o­gy at the Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of Munich will speak about “We are not alone. How microbes in the gut influ­ence our lives”.

Open­ing hours and prices

The spe­cial exhi­bi­tion “Intestines with Charm” can be seen at the Sci­ence Cen­ter exper­i­men­ta in Heil­bronn from Decem­ber 4, 2021 to May 1, 2022. It is open Mon­days to Fri­days from 9:00 to 17:00, and on week­ends and pub­lic hol­i­days from 10:00 to 18:00. The spe­cial exhi­bi­tion is includ­ed in the exper­i­men­ta admis­sion price, but can also be booked indi­vid­u­al­ly. In that case, a tick­et costs 7.00 euros for adults and 4.00 euros for concessions.