Microbiology of the Built Environment Meeting: Day 1

Here’s the report from Day 1 of the 5th annual Microbiology of the Built Environment meeting in Boulder, CO.  Following my summary of the talks is a Storify of all the tweets from the day.

The first talk of the day was by Ulla Haverinen-Shaughnessy from the University of Eastern Finland whose talk was entitled “IEQ Assessment in Relation to Human Health and Performance Indicators”.  She gave a really interesting and somewhat depressing review of a lot of literature on indoor air quality and the correlation with things such as student performance.  She highlighted the need for common assessment standards to be able to quantify problems such as air quality, mold, and dampness in buildings.

The second talk was “AAAAI Environmental Allergens Workshop” by J. David Miller from Carleton University in Ottawa.  His emphasis was on public policy, public health, and the importance of translation of MoBE research moving forward.  One of the many fascinating things he talked about was the idea that indoor air quality went way down after the energy crises in the 70’s.   People reduced ventilation, increased insulation, reduced energy consumption… and allergy rates soared.  Other factors that may have contributed were the advent of wall-wall carpeting and the switch to paper-based gypsum board.   I heard a lot about carpet at the bar last night, this talk pretty much convinced me that it’s evil.

Next was Charles Robertson from the University of Colorado Children’s Hospital talking about “Perspectives on Genetic Processing Pipelines for Environmental Studies”.  He talked extensively about the need for increased taxonomic resolution, particularly in the clinic.  Doctors want binomial genus species names to be able to make treatment calls based on organism biology.   Rhetorical question of “what are the error bars on taxonomic assignment?”.  He argued against the use of clustering for OTUs and argued for the use of the Silva database.  Much of this is over my head but I know these are controversial topics.

Karen Kalanetra from UC Davis led off the next (tag-team) talk about Environmental Monitoring in Wineries and Dairies.   They collected ~4500 samples from both inputs and surfaces in these facilities and are looking for factors that might influence potential food pathogens.   Highlighting numerous problems with ITS and Unite for fungal identification.  Then Nick Madrid talked about the sensors that his lab developed for long-term continuous monitoring in these facilities.

The premise of the next talk, by Jeff Siegel from the University of Toronto, was nicely phrased as a question in the title of his talk; “Does the building only matter when it gets wet?”.  Starting off talking about the office microbiome and the hospital microbiome studies and saying that very few building science parameters (pH, temp, occupancy, etc) have any correlation with microbial ecology.  Water on the other hand has a huge effect on microbial ecology of the space.  However, it’s hard to measure and the most common measure (relative humidity) probably doesn’t have much relevance to microbes.  They also have a really cool tool for standardizing swab samples… I’m curious if that’s an important source of sampling variation.

After lunch Jessica Green from the BIOBE Center at the University of Oregon talking about “Emerging Perspectives on Exposure Assessments.”  Starting off talking about outreach and education… they’ve done some really cool stuff in radio, print press, and teaching classes.   Then covered a lot of research done at the BIOBE Center (~14 publications worth).   Asking some really interesting questions, for example if the built environment is a reservoir for antibiotic resistance.  Described some of the fun stuff they do with their climate chamber.  Then Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg took over to talk about the architectural aspects of their work, in particular the impacts of daylight.

Noah Fierer from the University of Colorado told us the purpose of his talk was not to talk about the science, but to say what they’ve learned about methods along the way.  Starting with multiple ways to collect dust… do you want qualitative or quantitative?  How much biomass do you need?  Going down a list of considerations; absolute vs. relative abundance?  live or dead? avoid contamination?  Then getting into the bioinformatics… alpha versus beta diversity?  Use source-tracking with caution.

Tag-team talk from the BIMERC Consortium at UC Berkley (Tom Bruns, Yilin Tian, Despoina Lymperopoulou, and Pawel Misztal).  Tom started with a talk from a similar perspective as Noah but focused more on fungi.  Indoor microbes are overwhelmingly immigrants and they have a regional signature.   “Resident” microbes are never dominant.  Despoina talked about microbial inputs to indoor air. Yilin talked about the role of clothing in particle shedding from humans and also asked if clothing added to the florescent particle signals sometimes used to quantity microbes.  Then, switching gear again, Pawel asking questions about microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOC)… seems like very little is known about the microbial contribution to total VOCs?

Sarah Haig from University of Michigan “Linking Opportunistic Respiratory Pathogens to Physical & Chemical Characteristics in Drinking Water Systems”.  Talking about drinking water as a source of opportunistic bacteria.  Using cystic fibrosis as a model to assess infectivity of drinking water.  Extensive and complicated sampling of premise plumbing to hunt down building/water factors that correlate with opportunistic pathogens.  Houses further from the water treatment plant had more opportunistic bugs.  Used PacBio sequencing to get longer amplicons for species-level identification.

Kyle Bibby from the University of Pittsburgh “Drivers of Drinking Water Microbial Ecology: Research and Outlook”.  Similar to Sarah Haig, but really focused on how engineering decisions influence the system.  Also focused mostly on Legionella.  Disinfection processes structure bacterial communities… potentially in a counter-productive manner.  I was happy to see an outreach component to the project as well.

Andy Hoisington from the US Air Force Academy gave the last talk “Microbiology of the Built Environment and Mental Health from an Engineer’s Perspective”.  Introduced the Military and Veteran Microbiome Consortium for Research and Education.  Talked about the challenges associated with mental health work.  Immunoregulation affected by stress which may be part of the puzzle.  Fascinating data about early-life exposure to farm, Amish dust, the development of asthma etc.   Was so interested I stopped taking notes.


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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