The Microbiome of the Aquarium Enviornment

John Tillotson, CEO of Microbe Detectives, recently got together with Dr. Bill Van Bonn to gain insignts on the Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project. Dr. Van Bonn is the VP of Animal Health, Shedd Aquarium.

Dr. Bill Van Bonn
Vice President, Animal Health, Shedd Aquarium

Tell me about your responsibilities at Shedd.

I have oversight responsibilities for the Armour Center for Animal Health and Welfare at Shedd Aquarium and that is essentially the veterinary practice. It encompasses a hospital and three laboratories, one of those is which is aquatic microbial ecology laboratory.

What is the Shedd Microbiome Project?

The Shedd Microbiome Project is, we believe, the first really comprehensive look at the microbial communities that are associated with aquatic systems that are designed to house animals. That’s what we are, is a built environment for aquatic animals. The technology, currently available, allows us to recognize all sorts of unseen living organisms that are sharing the space with the animals, that are responsive to environmental parameters that are under our control in ways that we never knew before. We’re really interested in understanding that better with the ultimate aim of improving the health and welfare of the animals.

Why is Shedd conducting this project?

We’re particularly interested in the field of microbiome research following on our counterparts in human medicine. I’m a clinical veterinarian. I provide point of care services to individual patients of which we have many throughout this building. Following on what human practitioners are discovering about the influence of the microbial communities that share the space with their patients, we are very interested in answering the exact same questions for our patients. Every time we investigate that we’re rewarded with incredibly valuable information that shows that we are in fact getting better at what we do.

The new laboratory has been operational for just over a year, but the project itself, and our interest in this concept has been around for about ten years actually.

There is a concept in human medicine called the hygiene hypothesis. This means that we might be a little too clean. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence in epidemiology that Western culture and hygienic practices and antibiotic use and antiseptics, although they’ve been very beneficial at reducing the incidence of certain diseases, actually have increased others like allergies and asthma and autoimmune disorders. So we really started to investigate that about 10 years ago and that takes us directly into trying to understand microbial communities. The technology has now caught up to enable us to to do that in ways we never dreamed possible.

Ecologists talk about biodiversity. Biodiversity is generally recognized as a very good thing, right, we want to protect biodiversity. That’s because diverse communities are more resilient. They’re better able to tolerate change or stressors or things like that. When you reduce the diversity in a community, by using an antibiotic in the case of a microbe, or antiseptics, or that sort of thing, you shift the ability of that community to tolerate certain stressors. That’s the sort of thing we really need to understand better. So we’re on a mission to get people to think differently about the way they treat water and that’s largely the motivation for the project

Have you been able to implement any improvements so far as a result of this research?

One of the one of the best examples of a process that we actually have already changed based on the information we’ve gained is related to our efforts to conserve water around the building. We now take water from some of our fish systems, which is aged to the point that it’s not suitable for the fish, and instead of putting it to drain, we send it to systems without fish in them. We have systems with mammals and they’re not breathing the water. What we’ve done, or observed, in the process of doing that is that we’re also moving microbes and we’re creating a more diverse microbial community in the environment that those animals are living in. This change has in fact improved the health and welfare of those animals. So it’s been a win-win for us to conserve water and improve the health of the animals. We’re excited about more of those sort of discoveries.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Shedd Microbiome Project?

What we hope to accomplish is to create additional information and knowledge about the influence of our actions on water microbial communities specifically as it relates to the health of the animals that are living in the water. So for us that means for the zoo and aquarium community, we’re learning how to do a better job of taking care of the animals. We’re excited about the potential for this research to be valuable to other folks that take care of animals and aquatic environments.

We are kind of fond of calling the earth – aquarium earth – because it really is. The vast surface area of the planet is water and it’s a managed environment, so we think we can inform those management practices.

What do you hope we accomplish with the Microbiome Water Summit?

The Microbiome Water Summit is a really exciting concept, really exciting adventure for us to go on. It’s going to be bringing people together with different backgrounds, different experiences, different expertise. There is so much knowledge to share in this area, so much new information to share, and it’s very clear that partnerships and working together and collaborations and building ventures is going to be the future of progressing in directions that we all want to take. There’s a lot of space there. The Summit is an exciting thing to be a part of and we expect it to be lead to better things.

For those that are considering attending the Microbiome Water Summit, what do you think the key benefits will be for them to attend?

For anyone who might be thinking about whether they want to attend the Microbiome Water Summit, I bet that they didn’t expect to see an aquarium veterinarian talking about it. We all will be bringing really unique perspectives and information and so I think that’s where the discovery process will unfold and we’re excited to be a part of it.

Microbiome Water Summit 2017

  • Learn from leaders in this ground-breaking field
  • Network with a new community of innovators
  • View live streaming on the Internet

Presentations and panel discussions

  • Invisible Influence: The Microbiome in Health
  • Metagenomic Applications in Wastewater
  • Key Findings & Insights:
    • Biological Nutrient Removal (BNR) Study
    • Biogas Anaerobic Digester Study
  • Source Water Characterization
  • The Shedd Aquarium Microbiome Project
microbiome water summit shedd