Second in our series of “People Behind the Science” is Jack Gilbert from the University of Chicago, a new (and previous) Sloan grantee in the microbiology of the built environment program. Here Dr. Gilbert talks about his interest in the field and his new study looking at hospitals.
Question: How did you become interested in the microbiology of the built environment?
Jack: I am traditionally a marine microbiologist, so I am interested in bacteria that live in environments and how those bacteria respond to temporal changes or time changes with nutrients and pulses of the animals and the plants. It was very interesting to me to take the bacterial processes, and understanding the succession that we have been exploring in marine systems for so long, and how we could look at what happened in a building. Traditionally it has always been very hard to justify to the public why I am interested in bacteria in the sea. It’s become very easy to justify our research, especially to my mum, on the kinds of processes that happen in built environments. Why did I want to study the sea when I could study bacteria that were directly interacting with us? That was actually our first foray, so we moved into the home micro biome project at homemicrobiome.com, which was a first investigation of how humans interacted with bacteria in a built environment inside a house, where you spend a large amount of your time. Most of it is sleep, but still.
Question: You just got a new Sloan project funded, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Jack: About a year ago it became evident that there was a new hospital being built at the University of Chicago and this new hospital was going to be an 850 million dollar institute completely isolated from the rest of the hospital and absolutely the most cutting edge architectural development designed to minimize infection processes in hospitals. Hospital acquired infections kill an awfully large number of people in the U.S. each year with these so-called multi-drug resistant bacteria. So there was a lot of interest in what was this new building going to do to actually prevent that and could we track that using molecular techniques to understand how those bacteria, or bacterial pools, these reservoirs of bad bacteria, how they developed in that system and recognize bad bacteria entering a hospital. So we had a workshop where we had everyone from microbial ecologists to statisticians to surgeons to medics to the infection control groups and lawyers, to architects, and building scientists, and we said to them, we have this unique opportunity. The hospital becomes active at the beginning of February 2013, and the first patient moves in on February 2, 2013. So we said, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could look at what happens to the microbial community in this building as this large infrastructure was populated by a lot of sick people and a lot of medical workers. So we proposed this hypothesis and worked with the community, massive multidisciplinary activity, to discuss what is the most appropriate strategy to capture the dynamics of the microbial community and also the facets of the succession? When I say that I mean; how does the microbial community develop in a building. What do you leave behind when go to the hospital and what do you pick up? Is there a pattern to that in terms of the disease? That was very important to us and it captured the imagination of a lot of people in the medical sphere who had not really considered the use of these technologies, and also captured our imagination as microbial ecologists. This was a unique environment, something we could have never studied in a natural environment. It’s a unique opportunity to study a really dramatic shift in the use of a system.
Question: There are pictures of you sampling floors. Have you analyzed any of the results?
Jack: We took a bunch of researchers and program officers around the hospital infrastructure that currently exists, and as we went around we took our q-tips and we swabbed different surfaces. We even swabbed the shoes of the people walking around, before they entered the hospital, and after they entered the hospital. We were really interested to determine, in this study, what was the base like? This isn’t an investigation of a publish, but it is something which gives us some kind of perception of the variability between a toilet and a shower head, between the water system at the top of the building, between the ice spigots in the ice making machine, and the operating room floor to the bed area where the patients were to be living. So we did some investigation of this and we have some analysis coming out on the hospitalmicrobiome.com website very soon.
Question: What’s your favorite aspect of studying the built environment or approach to studying the built environment?
Jack: It’s a unique system that enables us to investigate how humans interact with that system. We are constantly exposed to it so I find it very interesting that I can take the micro biome of your nose, your hand and your feet and I can see specifically how you influence the bacteria that survive on the surfaces of a building.
I have a real desire to generate predictive models as I think this is fundamental to science. I generate predictive models all the time in my day-to-day life like: Do I have enough petrol to get to work? I’m very interested in how we can use this information to enable medics, architects and building scientists to better plan architectural development of buildings. Being within a group such as the Microbiology of the Built Environment Network has been fundamental to our capacity to actually perform these operations. It enables us to actually reach out to groups such as the Biology and the Built Environment Center in Oregon. They are very interested in these topics. We hope our research initiatives, designed to understand microbial successions in ecology, will enable them to develop better and more appropriately designed buildings.
Question: What is one big scientific question for the microBEnet community?
Jack: I am currently very interested in the development of appropriate tools to analyze quantification of microbial populations in certain areas. Let’s say maybe a big question for the whole of microbial ecology? For the last seven to eight years we have been playing around with our new toys, our new sequencing machines, our new kits that enable us to really get in depth at what the ecology of the microbial community means. Now we have to really take a step back and say: we have found out an awful lot, but what’s the next step? Can we quantify those processes? Everything we have learned we have put it in some kind of quantifiable measure that enables us to say, this number of bacterial cells occurs at time point one, this number at time point two, and this number at time point three. Those changes will influence how we perceive the successional development and the ecology of that system. So I would say understanding quantifiably the microbial processes in the built environment is fundamental to generating predictive analysis and fundamental to driving forward a better design of those buildings to reduce and minimize the impact to humans.