The world around and within us is teeming with microorganisms, many of which are critical for life on earth—and a very few of which can harm humans by causing disease. Though these organisms are hugely abundant and incredibly important, they are themselves invisible to the naked eye. Fortunately, we live in an era when the mysteries of microbial life—and the diversity of their forms and functions—are beginning to be revealed through the capture and characterization of their genomes.
Founded in 2011, the Department of Microbiology is the latest addition to the Academy's Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. Its creation was both a recognition of the enormous importance and diversity of microbes' roles, and a pioneering move for a natural history museum.
The Microbiology collection is a living fossil record, each layer providing frozen snapshots of earlier forms of microorganisms—snapshots we use to study the origins of infectious diseases. Our collection spans viruses, bacteria, fungi, eukaryotes, and metagenomes from many host groups collected from around the world.
The Microbiology Department is led by Chief of Science and Hind Dean of Science and Research Collections, Patterson Scholar and Curator of Microbiology, Shannon Bennett, whose work focuses on the diversity and evolution of viruses that can cause disease in humans and other animals. She is particularly interested in zoonotic pathogens—those that exist in non-human animal reservoirs—and mosquito-borne microbes.
Microbiology staff engage in ongoing, local and global expeditions to build our collection—a living library of microbial evolution—and to advance our understanding of microbes' role in human health and disease.
Learn more about our areas of focus—active, ongoing research that seeks to answer some of the biggest questions in the field.