Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project

The Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project is the world’s first comprehensive look at microbiomes in a controlled aquarium ecosystem and how they influence complex environmental conditions and animal health. Shedd Aquarium along with Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois, Illinois Institute of Technology and the United States Department of Agriculture started this project to explore the unique relationships between the countless unseen living organisms that share our exhibit environments with the animals that live there. 

What is a microbiome?
Shedd’s microbiome — literally tiny biological community — encompasses the ubiquitous and naturally occurring microscopic life forms, or microbes, that are in the exhibits and in, on and around the animals living there. The majority of these microbes are not only beneficial; they are also essential to the health and well-being of the animals.

Why are microbiomes important?
Scientists now understand that controlling disease-causing microbes with antibiotics and super-hygienic practices has sometimes led to the decline of vital beneficial microbes and the increasing prevalence of health problems in humans and wildlife alike, including allergies and other inappropriate immune responses and even several behavioral disorders.

Why study microbiomes?
Aquariums, as facsimiles of natural or “wild-type” water environments, offer a unique opportunity to study aquatic microbiomes. These controlled systems, with inputs, outputs and processes that are accurately known and precisely documented with years of high-confidence data, enable us to explore how changes in environmental parameters have system-wide effects. And the newest molecular biological techniques enable us to discover which microbes live where and what they are doing. The results of the studies conducted through the Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project will revolutionize how we think about water quality and how we manage the environmental conditions in the exhibits for the optimal health of the animals.

At Shedd Aquarium, this project is overseen by Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president for animal health and head of the A. Watson Armour III Center for Animal Health and Welfare, alongside Allen LaPointe, vice president overseeing environmental quality.

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The Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project is made possible in part by the generosity of The Grainger Foundation.

The Grainger Foundation