This semester, I’m teaching a microbiology course for non-majors. The course was originally designed to focus on microbial diseases and public health, but as I crafted my version of the course, I wanted to broaden our view of microbiology and include the fascinating field of microbiome research. In our first few weeks (relentless winter weather notwithstanding), we’ve learned about the microbial communities in and on us, their importance for our health and development, and how researchers are working to better understand the roles and functions of our microbial partners.
When planning this microbiome module, I decided it was essential to cover the microbiome of the built environment. After all, most of my students may spend the majority of their lives indoors. It makes sense to explore research on the microbial communities of our manmade environments, and it prompts us to think about our buildings in a very different way, as incubators of life.
Before class, students watched Jessica Green’s presentation at the AAAS symposium last March and read Daniel Sprockett’s article on Medium. Dr. Green’s presentation is a fantastic introduction to microbiomes of the built environment. It features an abundance of clear and accessible data visualizations, something I appreciate even more now that I’m teaching.
During the class, we focused on two recent papers: a study of the classroom microbiome from Dr. Green, first author James Meadow and others and an analysis of data from the Home Microbiome Project by Jack Gilbert and his team. The microbial communities of classrooms have obvious immediate significance, because we were stewing in them at that moment. We discussed how dispersal, different types of contact and possible surface-specific selection combined to establish distinct microbial communities on walls, floors, chairs and desks. We then shifted to the Home Microbiome Project and explored how the seven families in the study had distinctive home microbiomes. The students were interested in how quickly homes were colonized after participants moved during the study.
We closed by asking the all-important “Why should we care about this?” We touched on a few case studies, including the NYC subway metagenomics study released just that week, an investigation of microbes colonizing neonatal intensive care units and an analysis of possible microbial contamination of spacecraft.
As a professor, it’s a fantastic part of my job to present these new ideas and findings to my students and hear their thoughts and questions. I told my students that we had an opportunity to pose questions to researchers working on microbiomes of the built environment, and they had some fabulous questions. I’ve posted a few below. Do we have answers, or are we on the hunt for more information?
How can we influence the types of microbes that grow in the built environment?
How do you see your research being implemented in the future?
Would there be a large difference between the microbiome of a built environment in a developing country versus a built environment in a developed country? What types of differences might we see in these microbiomes? What effects might these differences have on the people living in them and could you argue that one is better than the other based on these effects?
I am curious if there is any research about how built environment manipulation can aid or facilitate the eradication of an outbreak in a confined space such as a college campus.
There are so many different types of material that make up our infrastructure. Are there any particulars types of material that are better at inhibiting bacterial growth than others?
Is there a way for scientists to create a faux outdoor environment that would change the state of built environments? For example — outdoor microorganisms in something like a Glade Plug-In (for lack of a better example).
Would someone who cooks more or smokes cigars and/or cigarettes in their home have a noticeably different microbiome in their home?
Did you find correlations between the age of the people living in the households and the microbes found on the surfaces in those homes?
I was curious to know whether researchers account for their own microbes that they may bring into the built environment. That is to say — is it significant enough where a team of researchers may have to account for microbes that could show up from their lab or themselves?
What made the science field shift from expelling all microbes to understanding that some microbes help humans, and when did this shift occur?