Report on 2014 Sloan Conference in the Microbiology of the Built Environment

Just wrapped up the 3rd Annual Sloan Conference in the Microbiology of the Built Environment.  We saw 20 presentations, a number of posters, and had some time to set up new collaborations, argue methods, and eat good food.

I’m going to take a different approach to my conference report here, I’m only going to talk about the few presentations that generated controversy and dig a bit into those discussions.   I felt there were several undercurrents of disagreement flowing through the meeting and airing those might be more useful than recapitulating all the talks (which I wouldn’t do justice to anyway).  Questions weren’t allowed at the meeting so this comes from hallway conversations and Twitter.  The Storify of all tweets from the meeting is below.

One of the first talks of the meeting was widely praised by most of the building scientists but caused some murmurs among the biologists.  There were two reasons for this, both of which I think are interesting points to pursue further.

Firstly, the speaker conveyed the impression of being from the “germs are bad we should kill them all” school of thought.  He talked extensively about the importance of cleaning and sterilizing the built environment, particularly schools.   One tweet by a biologist asked “Are we back in 1995?”.  This difference of opinion was a theme that we saw several times throughout the conference.   I think that finding the balance between controlling the bad bugs (which is the primary aim of much building design, building maintenance, and existing regulations) and the idea of a “healthy” microbial ecosystem and maintaining “good” bugs will continue to be a struggle.   Next, the speaker said that students shouldn’t have pets in the classroom because of the allergenic potential.  The immediate reaction of many of the biologists was that pets have been suggested to be quite important in the opposite way.  For example the hygiene hypothesis and a later presentation by Susan Lynch showing the beneficial effects of dogs on the human microbiome.  One interesting dinner discussion revolved around the age of this effect.  It’s possible that having animals around conveys a protective effect on infants and that by the time a child is school-aged, the net benefit is lost.

Several speakers, from all disciplines, alluded to or further fomented the debate about discovery-based science versus applications.  Subtle accusations and defenses were made regarding whether or not discovery-based 16S sequencing has taught us anything about indoor microbiology that we didn’t know 100 years ago.  The viewpoint suggesting that modern techniques haven’t added much was stated most strongly in a recent review article called “Recent Advances in the Microbiology of the Built Environment” which was quoted by a few speakers.  A post by Rachel Adams and James Meadow here on microBenet aimed at providing a counterpoint.  This exact debate weaved it’s way through the conference, particularly on Twitter.   I also heard a number of discussions relating to the closely related question about the relative value of discovery-based science and applied science.  To grossly overgeneralize I feel it’s fair to say that the microbial ecologists could do a better job of considering the downsteam impacts of the work (e.g. following standard techniques that would be recognized by government regulations and by a court in a building dispute).  On the other hand, many of the practitioners could consider that the microbial ecology is at a very early stage of figuring out what is out there and what tools to use.  It seems premature to me to expect that direct practical applications (e.g. new regulations) from 16S surveys should be immediately forthcoming.

There was plenty of good discussion revolving around the choice of tools to analyze sequence data.  In addition to QIIME which is pretty well established we heard about Explicet, MED, and Oligotyping.  The nuances of these discussions are beyond my understanding but I think it’s clear that there’s not a solid agreement in the field on the best kind of approach we should be taking, much less which tools to use.

Another discussion which was outside my knowledge was around sampling techniques.  Obviously there is a lot of debate about the best way to collect things, be it fungal spores, bacterial swabs, or building data.  What struck me was how strongly worded some of it was; “plate sampling is absolutely the wrong thing to be doing, ever” stated one speaker.  That statement was followed by a Twitter discussion highlighting data and references to the contrary.   I think the best summary was by the speaker who emphasized that “it depends on your question”.

Overall it seems to be that great strides have been made in this field over the last three years.  Many of the papers that have been published and the data that were presented at this conference are proof of that.   However, it’s also clear that there is a very long way to go… both scientifically and culturally.

Here is the Storify of the tweets from the meeting:

8 thoughts on “Report on 2014 Sloan Conference in the Microbiology of the Built Environment

  1. Mark – you did a great job! Thanks for all your efforts. I hope the stress dissipates quickly.

    David, I think your summary is good, especially the summary of the summary — it all depends on the question you are asking. We — the various communities represented at the conference — ask different questions. That’s OK, but hard for others to recognize, accept, and understand. Nobody knows (or cares) about everything!

  2. Indeed, thank you very much for organizing Mark. And thanks also to Alina.

    Hal, I’ll also try to compile a list of the resources and papers that people discussed on Twitter during the conference so that everyone can see that information.

  3. When I look at the twitter storify, I see everything repeated at least twice, some times 4x. Can you check it?

    Do I have incorrect settings or something like that?

  4. Nice summary David – thanks. I would just like to make one comment – I think there is a false dichotomy between basic “versus” applied science (or as you put it – “discovery-based science versus applications”. First, most research does not fit cleanly into “basic” or “applied”. In addition, research products are (and should be) dynamic, integrating many types of both basic and applied questions and going back and forth between them. A good article on the topic is “RIP: The Basic/Applied Research Dichotomy”: If one has to categorize research into basic and applied I think we would all be better off if we moved the conversation to the need for “basic AND applied” not “basic VERUS applied”.

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David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter