The coronavirus pandemic has made us acutely aware of the invisible world of microbes. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an invisible threat; we fear door handles secretly teeming with the pathogen, infected respiratory droplets floating unseen in the air. But microbes have always been all around us, and within us—about 38 trillion of them live in and on each of our bodies. Microbial sciences company Seed wants to help everyone learn more about this invisible world, and how microbes are tied to both our and the planet’s health, with a six-week science course you can take entirely on Instagram.
“Right now we’re in a moment where a microbe in the form of a virus has certainly disrupted most everything we knew about life, and also enforced some of our fear of the invisible world,” says Ara Katz, cofounder of Seed, which is developing ways to use bacteria to impact both human health, like through probiotics, and environmental health.
It makes sense to fear what we don’t know and what we can’t see, she adds, and bacteria has certainly gotten a bad rap, but human pathogens actually account for less than 1% of all existing microbes in the world. Without microbes, the Seed #LearnFromHome course explains, “there would be no ‘us.'”
Debuting on April 22 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the six-week course will feature a new chapter dropped via Seed‘s Instagram highlights each week, beginning with the very start of life on Earth 4.5 billion years ago. Following chapters will cover the misunderstanding of microbes—how we’ve demonized all microbes because of our fear that they cause disease—and the problems that stemmed from that; how microbes make up about 50% of us as humans, gut health and the role microbes play in medicine; and how microbes and planetary health are connected, like how they make soil healthier or could potentially solve our plastics crisis.
The scientists making appearances include Jacques Ravel, associate director for genomics at the Institute of Genome Sciences and professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Maryland, and Christopher Mason, an associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. Artists like Sally Warring, a biologist and documentarian, and Meetra Javed, a writer and poet, will also show up on Seed’s Instagram for IG Live videos and Q&As.
The point, Katz says, is to meet people where they already are (on Instagram) in a way that makes science both more fun and accessible, which then hopefully amplifies its reach and reignites people’s curiosity. The course will also have pop quizzes and rewards for participants, including books and Seed merch, like a “science” fanny pack, that otherwise aren’t available for purchase. “Our currency is learning,” she says. “There’s no way to buy these things. You have to earn them.”
This isn’t Seed’s first foray into Instagram education and learning-based rewards. The company previously launched SeedUniversity, a course specifically for influencers who work with Seed as brand affiliates, “which was our antidote to misinformation and FTC violations,” Katz says. Before an influencer can work with Seed, they have to take the 59-minute course and pass an exam, and also use the hashtag “#accountable” to show that they prioritize science and transparency.
Just like Seed University, the #LearnFromHome course is a chance to change how people use Instagram, which is often a source of confirmation bias or unchecked sources, and spur some curiosity and interest in science. Especially at a time where people are overwhelmed and maybe even confused about all the information on coronavirus, learning to think scientifically can help people make better, informed choices about their own behaviors, and improve how they scrutinize certain information and sources.
“As a species, we don’t tolerate nuance well,” Katz says. But in science there’s so much nuance and questioning and ideas that change over time as we gain more knowledge. “What we feel is that even in the most subtle ways, if you could make science more accessible and allow people to learn on platforms and places that they are currently acquiring their information, could you then empower a bit more agency so that then a headline doesn’t feel like terror?”
Many people may have not taken a science course since high school, but Seed thinks science is for everyone. As for how to get people interested in tuning into the course in the first place, Katz thinks the subject matter of microbes is enticing enough: “When you learn that there’s 38 trillion of them living in and on you, and that three to five pounds of your entire body are not human, that usually perks up some ears.”