Distraction Free Reading

How Microbes Became Friendly: Visualizations of the Microbiome in Public Media

The biology, as astonishing as it is, does not tell us what it will mean. -Stephan Helmreich, “Homo Microbis” (2014, 4)

Within microbiome research, the human body can be recast as a host of microbial ecologies, a “supraorganism” or “holobiont.” From this comes new ways of understanding and treating digestive diseases as well as illnesses associated with brain functioning, like depression and Alzheimer’s. This research reflects the increasing emphasis in the life sciences on “life as process” (Dupre and O’Malley 2007, Dupre 2020), and in the social sciences on the body as “biosocial” (Niehwöhner and Lock 2018). We take up these insights and examine one way that these ontologies of body and environment circulate in public ways by analyzing how the human body is depicted in relation to microbes and environments through public visualizations of the human microbiome.

Despite the fact that the human microbiome is made of up non-humans and should raise questions about human exceptionality, the human microbiome circulates in the media primarily in relation to human health. How to care for health through attending to the human microbiome has become a wellness topic circulating in popular news media, from science journalism to lifestyle and wellness magazines and websites. There are soaps, foods, and food preparation methods that are microbiome-friendly. There are direct-to-consumer tests that will offer personalized, if not precise, nutrition recommendations. There are magazine articles advising readers on how to care and optimize their various microbiomes, from stomach to skin to vagina. How are bodies, microbes, and environments portrayed as the relational entities that they are for public audiences?

We explore two prominent visual themes in the public visualizations of the microbiome. First, the representations of boundaries of the human body in relation to microbial bodies. This means paying attention to how the microbial worlds within, and the environment outside, the body are visually constituted. This is to visually contextualize the ubiquitous headline or textual hook about the human microbiome: that within the human body, microbial cells outnumber human cells. The scale of difference has oscillated as research accumulates and has ranged from estimates of a ratio of 100 microbial cells to 1 human cell, to 10:1 to 3:1, and most recently resting closer to a ratio of 1.3:1 (Saey 2016). Second, we consider how differences (racial, gendered, in physical ability/fitness) were represented. Our focus on public media follows Adele Clarke’s analysis of the role of the media in the assemblages of “healthscapes” (2010, 105-06) and shows how the microbiome becomes part of expansive processes of biomedicalization (Clarke et al 2010) that normalize directions of health care and individual responsibility. The media is not only central to the proliferation of concepts of health, but also generates and reproduces expectations of how the world should work in regard to health (Briggs and Hallin 2016).

We argue that the visualizations of the microbiome in the popular media depict it as a friendly frontier within the bounded human body. Through pictures and the news article headlines that accompany them, the human microbiome is presented as having silently cared for the body until its potential was recently discovered by scientists. This depiction suggests that the human body’s health is the purpose of the microbiome itself and of scientific research into its mechanisms. The human body, with the guidance of experts, becomes a site in which one can attune themselves to their microbiome’s unique composition through experiments in diet, skin care, nutritional supplements, and nutraceuticals. Ultimately, the microbiome becomes another part of the human body that can be known through biomedicine with the ends of optimizing human health. As such, we are critical of the science communication but also see it as embedded in social and political processes that exceed it, meaning that the future for more-than-human flourishing that some narratives of microbiome science hope for will take a great deal of work to realize in a world of the financialization of microbial life.

Visual Translations of Boundaries and Differences

Our visual discourse analysis is based on publicly circulating images we compiled from online news articles about the human microbiome. In so doing, we aimed to capture a part of the microbiome’s place in the contemporary healthscape. Our database spans across all forms of online news, from traditional to specialist, reflecting the accessibility of media in the current age. We collected these articles by following Google Alerts set up to catch the keywords “microbiome” and “direct-to-consumer microbiome test.” We have focused our visual analysis on images featured in articles for a generalized audience—like a health news site detailing steps readers can take in their daily lives to improve their health—rather than those speaking to experts—like a health news site informing practitioners about new treatments and developments in the field. We compiled this data in the fall of 2019, from September 7th, 2019 to January 20th, 2020, unknowingly doing so just before the COVID-19 pandemic began and people the world over were compelled to be aware of a new microbe harmful to human health. Throughout this article, we focus in-depth on several images which reflect or contest the makeup of our larger collection of 152 images.

With few exceptions, the human bodies portrayed in these articles are all white, able-bodied, and fit (Figure 1). The link between fitness and the human microbiome is strongly emphasized in the media, visually and textually, echoing the portrayal of able-bodiedness and weight loss as ideals by direct-to-consumer microbiome tests, as Dryden has also found in gut microbiome therapies (2023). The majority of the photos featuring people show them alone. If not alone, then the images depict humans in a clinical setting of medical professionals or scientists alongside a patient. Very few images feature people together in non-medical settings.

A close up on a white person's bare torso with hands in a heart-shape cradling a slim stomach

Figure 1: A close up on a white person’s bare torso with hands cradling a slim stomach (Image taken from iStock, Peopleimages)

Illustration of green, blue, purple, and yellow microbes in the shape of two human bodies coded as female and male (one shorter and with a dress).

Figure 2: Illustration of microbes in the shape of two human bodies coded as female and male (Shuttershock, lanatoma)

There are important translations occurring in these images, notably that of scale, a particular challenge for visualizing the connection between humans and their microbiomes as the average human is well over a million times greater in size than a single microbe. Even the width of a single human hair is seventy-five times greater than an average microbe. The relationship between the two across this vast space is visually affirmed by truncating the human body and enlarging the microbes, portraying them as closer in scale. Related images show enlarged microbes that render the silhouette of a human body (Figure 2). Notably, even in this abstracted state, the microbes privilege sexual dimorphism and gender stereotypes: the microbes representing a woman are identifiable as such because they are positioned to imply the wearing of a skirt, much like the dualistic symbols used to denote gender on public washrooms stalls. In contrast to the solitude of the human body among microbes, microbes are always represented in plenty; there is no solitary microbe, only solitary humans.

Of all the images we analyzed, only two showed microbes engaged in activity, and they offer a striking contradiction. One image features two microbes fighting each other, equipped with anachronistic armour and weapons[1]; the other image features three microbes with stick arms and legs meditating harmoniously in a stomach.[2] These images represent differing public metaphors for understanding the microbiome. One is antagonistic, portraying the supposed need to attack and destroy to survive, while the other shows harmony as the desired state and solution. The microbiome is a potential site for human intervention and control in service to one’s health, but it is also a slippery research subject that requires large data sets and whose implications are emergent and nascent, despite what the landscape of wellness products would have consumers believe. The microbiome challenges contemporary health management practices but is still trying to be understood through these practices (Wolf-Meyer 2017).

The microbes in our database images are made friendly by their bright colouring. This makes them approachable, perhaps to counteract their daunting plenitude, association with germs that impede health, and integrality to scatological functions. Only one image of a microbe from our data set was not digitally rendered and colourized; all the others were turned into bright colours. Images of diverse microbiomes used an array of aesthetically pleasing colours to differentiate between the different microbes. This colourizing continues outside of our dataset. For instance, on the front page of APC Microbiome Ireland’s (a research centre at University College Cork) website for World Microbiome Day, microbes are caricatured into bright, grotesquely smiling little monsters reminiscent of the characters from Monsters Inc. or the pill-shaped yellow Minions (similar to Figure 3). This representation maintains the otherness of the microbe to the human—some have only one eye, others have horns, all are oddly shaped—while also bringing the microbe closer to the human—the mere fact that they have eyes, smiling mouths, waving arms, and bipedal legs. The translation between human and microbe is emphasizing commonality and aestheticizing difference in a familiar and palatable way. The microbes are not quite anthropomorphized, but recognized as distinct yet potentially friendly.  Microbes—these infinitesimal organisms that have only the most basic similarities to humans—are being translated into human conceptions of what life looks like and how the human can optimize it through proper management and care regimes.

Banner from APC Irelands' World Microbiome Day, with colourful waving monster microbes

Figure 5: Banner from APC Irelands’ World Microbiome Day (Image taken from Shuttershock, curiosity)

Optimized Microbes in the Service of Human Health

These visual representations of microbes contribute to narratives that strongly associate the microbiome with actively managing human health. Microbiome science also challenges narratives of dangerous microbes as disease causing pathogens to be systematically eradicated. Because the microbe of the microbiome’s ecology challenges such narratives, it is rendered visually relatable and appealing through the methods of representation detailed above. While people are mostly pictured alone in these representations, they are also frequently pictured in clinical settings. The individualism of healthy practices is thus bridged through the figure of the expert, the scientist or doctor.

Penny Ironstone (2019) writes that the human microbiome is associated with a liberatory micropolitics because it potentially challenges biomedical models of health, providing “post-Pasteurian models” (Paxson 2008) or “post-antibiotic futures” (Sariola 2021). But while certain people, such as fermentation specialists (e.g. Hey in press; Widmer 2021), draw on human-microbial relations to critique biomedicine, even capitalism, in favor of new futures, the optimism of new relations between humans and microbes is conveyed slightly differently in biomedical and wellness narratives.

Making Microbiomes Human

There is an almost unimaginably large amount of microbial life that humans move through in their daily lives, and that moves through humans. Although the microbiome’s promise in the health sciences, and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, circulates with much hope for new experiences of the body and new kinds of politics, the visual depictions to date rather replicate other aspects of biomedicalization: the microbiome is visualized as a scientized entity to be harnessed by the human host to optimize wellness. This is in the scaling translations of microbes to seem closer to human, as well as in the way that microbes are depicted in relation to the boundaries of the human body and not to microbes in surrounding environments, such as soils. This is also in the depiction of friendly microbes that resemble children’s cartoons. The visualizations of the microbes in the service of the human host render the “human microbiome” as something that can become “my microbiome.” This rendering lends itself well to precision wellness possibilities. The visualizations do not disrupt other common naturalizing categories associated with the body: the bodies in the healthscape of the microbiome centre whiteness, able bodies, and heteronormative gender binaries.

The microbiome sciences and the social scientists who engage with them (e.g. Benezra 2020, 2023) hold promise for reimagining the body and illness in ways that might decentre the human. While this work is crucially necessary for grappling with health and social issues of the broader late or post-industrial context, the images of the microbiome in the current biomedicalized healthscape only take us a short way there.


[1] https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/569226 

[2] https://thevarsity.ca/2019/09/30/the-promise-of-the-human-microbiome-in-cancer-research/


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