The hidden diversity of offices – what microbes are lurking there? #PLoSOne

A new paper from Scott Kelley is out: PLoS ONE: Office Space Bacterial Abundance and Diversity in Three Metropolitan Areas.

This work was supported in part by the Sloan Foundation’s program in Microbiology of the Built Environment (which is the same program that funds microBEnet).

Lots of interesting stuff in the paper.  Certainly the most visually pleasing figure is the following:

The abundances of various bacterial divisions (see color legend) in the 54 samples were based on multiplexed pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA gene sequences. The codes for each sample are presented along the X-axis and indicate the city (NY = New York, SF = San Francisco, TU = Tucson), gender of the office occupant (F = Female, M = Male), and site within the office from which the sample (C = Chair, P = Phone) was obtained, followed by sample number.  doi:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0037849.g002

Figure 2. Relative abundance of bacterial divisions across samples.

The abundances of various bacterial divisions (see color legend) in the 54 samples were based on multiplexed pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA gene sequences. The codes for each sample are presented along the X-axis and indicate the city (NY = New York, SF = San Francisco, TU = Tucson), gender of the office occupant (F = Female, M = Male), and site within the office from which the sample (C = Chair, P = Phone) was obtained, followed by sample number.

doi:info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0037849.g002

But the more interesting results come from looking at variables of the samples (i.e., metadata) associated with microbial abundances (as measured by culturing) or relative abundances (as measured by rRNA PCR surveys).

They summarize their results of this meta-data association as follows:

A three-factorial Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) found significant differences in viable bacterial abundance between offices inhabited by men or women, among the various surface types, and among cities. Multiplex pyrosequencing identified more than 500 bacterial genera from 20 different bacterial divisions. The most abundant of these genera tended to be common inhabitants of human skin, nasal, oral or intestinal cavities. Other commonly occurring genera appeared to have environmental origins (e.g., soils). There were no significant differences in the bacterial diversity between offices inhabited by men or women or among surfaces, but the bacterial community diversity of the Tucson samples was clearly distinguishable from that of New York and San Francisco, which were indistinguishable. Overall, our comprehensive molecular analysis of office building microbial diversity shows the potential of these methods for studying patterns and origins of indoor bacterial contamination.

Good timing on this too as I am in Boulder right now for a meeting of all the people getting funding from the Sloan Foundation in their Microbiology of the Built Environment program and I assume I will be seeing Scott tomorrow.  Maybe I can get him to post some details here of the story behind the paper …

The paper has attracted at least some attention (I first found out about it from Katherine Harmon’s blog post). Some other stories / posts include:

Alas much of the coverage its focusing on the counts of bacteria in each location – and such focus on counts kind of drives me crazy much of the time since it almost certainly matters more exactly what microbes are found somewhere and not how many.  Thus it is good that the paper includes BOTH kinds of survey – culturing and rRNA PCR.  Of course – the press could not resist the “men are dirtier than women” meme.  Oh well … still a cool study.

Jonathan Eisen

Professor at the University of California, Davis. Biologist and blogger with a focus on evolution and ecology of microbes and their genomes & openscience. Lab Site . Twitter

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