Diversify Your Microbiome by Rock Climbing Indoors

When a recently published paper entitled “Microbial Sequencing Analyses Suggest the Presence of a Fecal Veneer on Indoor Climbing Wall Holds” showed up in my NCBI digest, I got excited.  However, my excitement died a little when I actually read the paper. Most importantly, the title is slightly deceptive, as only 9% of all reads in the study classified as fecal-associated organisms.  The authors even state that their results indicate “dispersal of microorganisms from climbing shoes, hands, and environmental sources, with less input from human sources on climbing holds compared to other built environments.”

The study authors swabbed hand holds from four unidentified rock climbing gyms-three of which were coastal.  The majority of reads across all four gyms were environmental-specifically, soil-associated, likely from the rock climbers’ shoes, with the most abundant phyla being the Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Cyanobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria, Acidobacteria, and Planctomycetes.  Interesting was the increased abundance of marine-associated bacterial reads in coastal gyms compared to the inland gym.

Though I don’t feel as though the findings in the study are earth shattering, they do illustrate an important point-the built environments that we inhabit each and every day-whether they are our houses, workplaces, or gyms-are perfect places for sharing microbes of all sorts-both environmental and human-associated.  And while these places represent potential sources for opportunistic pathogens, the more likely scenario is that we only get a healthy dosage of environmental microbes from these built environments.

Speaking of a fecal veneer, I bet those plastic cars, blocks, and playhouses that snotty, salivating, poopy children play on at the malls are just chock FULL of fecal-associated bacteria. Next built environment study, anyone?

Sheldon, wearing gloves, knows that indoor rock walls can be dirty.  Is he being too hygienic?

Sheldon, wearing gloves, knows that indoor rock walls are full of bacteria. Is he being too hygienic?

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8 Responses to Diversify Your Microbiome by Rock Climbing Indoors

  1. Have people already looked at the microbiome of ball pits? With tons of kids playing, drooling, and peeing in them, I bet those balls are covered in bacteria. How often are those balls cleaned?

    Here is one study using culture based techniques: http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/02/bacteria%20in%20playlands.html
    and an older one: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10532011

    Has anyone already done a molecular study?

  2. How about ball pits? Those tubs filled with colored balls that kids can dive in? Those are not cleaned very often, and with all those kids playing, drooling and even peeing in them (as someone who worked at Ikea once told me), I bet those balls are covered with a nice biofilm.
    Here are two culture-based studies that sound promising: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10532011
    and
    http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/02/bacteria%20in%20playlands.html
    I would love to see a microbiome study on them!

  3. How about ball pits? Those tubs filled with colored balls that kids can dive in? Those are not cleaned very often, and with all those kids playing, drooling and even peeing in them (as someone who worked at Ikea once told me), I bet those balls are covered with a nice biofilm.
    I found two culture-based studies online, but I would love to see a microbiome study on them!

  4. David Coil says:

    I feel like I have to put a plug in here for my article “I would rather lick a toilet than a cell phone” where I bash on these kinds of studies.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/01/bacteria_in_the_media_toilet_seats_aren_t_germy_and_cellphones_aren_t_dangerous.html

    To summarize from the article my main issues:

    First, bacteria are everywhere. Really everywhere. Good luck finding a surface *not* covered in bacteria.

    Second, most of these stories focus on “dangerous” bacteria without actually measuring any such thing. For example, most E.coli are perfectly fine. In fact, some are essential to have a healthy digestive tract. True, some strains (such as O157:H7) are bad news. But simply saying “E.coli” doesn’t provide very useful information. It’s akin to describing a burglar as “human.”

    Third, even if there are genuine pathogens (which by the way represent only a tiny, tiny fraction of bacteria in the world) on some of these household items, that doesn’t equate to an actual health risk.

    • Embriette Hyde says:

      Well said-I couldn’t agree more!

    • Dave Vuono says:

      Thanks for checking out our paper. For your first point, indeed microbes are everywhere, but thats not what we are saying.

      For your second point regarding “dangerous” bacteria, we tried culturing for MRSA and other known pathogens but didn’t find anything. The “fecal veneer” is just pointing out that all the sampled holds had an E coli OTU, whose closest BLAST hit was an E coli associated with Travelers Diarrhea, which I personally think is pretty hilarious. But the paper also discusses some interesting patterns of dispersal of bacteria with marine signatures that are only found on samples collected near the ocean.

      For your third point, try telling that to Norm Pace. Indeed it’s not a health risk for healthy people, but people that might be immunocompromised could be at risk. But I guess you don’t know what’s there unless you look.

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