WITH first met Ina Schuppe Koistinen in 2019 at the International Yoga and Science Conference in Stockholm. Ina brought something amazing to her presentation, a mix of science, art, and yoga — not something you typically see at a science conference.
Ina illustrates her science with evocative watercolors, bringing her study of the microbiome to life in a unique way that brings you out of the intellectual “I’m trying to understand what all of this means” mode to a “wow, so that’s what it looks like” feeling. We pitched some questions Ina’s way. Here’s what came back!
WITH: Your work as a visual artist and painter often focuses on cells and other microscopic life forms. What drew you to creating art around these subjects?
Ina Schuppe Koistinen: When I was a PhD student many years ago I worked a lot with microscopy and discovered the beauty of cells, especially the cells of our nervous system. I started to paint cells because I wanted to share this beauty with others and to recreate the fascination and impression human biology made on me.
The more I have learned about science, the more I wanted to share it with a broader audience and I just continued to explore science from an artist’s perspective. Art is a powerful tool for telling a scientific story. Both science and art have the goal to understand and explain the world we live in.
Painting is another form of meditation for me, but my art is much broader than scientific themes. I also explore landscapes, light, flowers, models, and abstract painting.
My watercolors confront me with the challenge of spontaneous decisions and force me to focus and be present the moment the brush hits the paper. It is pure meditation to watch the water move color pigments. I love that it is an irreversible process. Once the stroke is made, it cannot be removed and so I must be very present as I create.
W: You are known to be an expert on the microbiome. For the layperson, what exactly is the microbiome? Is it the same as your gut?
I: The concept that most people seem to grasp the easiest is this: we are living in a microbial world and our bodies are covered and inhabited by trillions of microorganisms — the so-called microbiota.
Our human microbiota is not just made of bacteria, it also contains viruses, fungi and ancient life forms, like archaea. The bulk of our microbiota live in our gut.
To answer your question directly, the microbiome refers to these cells, plus the genes these cells contain. So it is the microbes and their genes, together.
Measuring genes is the way we find out which specific microbes are in your body. The gut contains about 1.5 kilograms (2.2 pounds) of microbes. That is a larger weight than our brain!
W: As a non-medical person, it seems to me like all this interest in the microbiome is a recent phenomenon. Why do you believe this sort of science is more in the public eye now than, say, 10 years ago?
I: The short answer is that we now have the scientific tools needed to properly study the microbiome and the enormously complex ways in which these microscopic creatures are impacting us. Genome sequencing technology in particular has helped to create very strong links between microbiota, our physiology, and our overall health. We can see connections now that were not available to us before, due to the constraints of the technologies we were using even a decade ago.
W: If you are eating a standard omnivorous diet, what are some very basic first steps you can take to improve your microbiome?
I: The best foods for the microbiome are not very different from what has been considered the Mediterranean Diet — lots of high fiber foods, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (not just potatoes and bananas), and fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir, mold cheese, kimchi, tempeh and sauerkraut. Honey contains healthy microbes as well.
Foods like whole vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, and fish are great to eat every day, while sweets, meats, and highly processed foods should be eaten sparingly. If you can stick within these general guidelines, that’s a great place to start.
W: If you were to help correct one glaring misconception that most people have about the microbiome, what would it be? What are we getting “wrong” and how can we evolve our thinking? What’s at stake if we don’t?
I: Microbes have inhabited the earth for hundreds of millions of years longer than humans. For as long as we have existed, we’ve provided microbes with a moist home and a “warm buffet.”
In return, microbes educate our immune system, provide us with protection from pathogens, and produce vitamins that help us to digest food and fibers.
Thinking about microbes as dangerous and using antibacterial compounds in soap, clothing or cosmetic products goes against nature. Let the children play in nature, don’t worry about getting your hands dirty in your garden.
We need to embrace this co-existence and feed the good microbes. They shield us from pathogens that make us sick. We don’t want to kill what protects us in the name of being a “germ-free” society.