Sloan Program on Microbiology of the Built Environment

microBEnet is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of their program on the Microbiology of the Built Environment.

A conversation with Paula Olsiewski, program director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program on the Microbiology of the Built Environment

What is the Foundation’s program on the Microbiology of the Built Environment?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is funding an emerging field of scientific inquiry – the microbiology of the built environment. Science knows a lot about microbiology in the natural environment, but we know next to nothing about the complex microbial ecosystems found in the built environment.

The Sloan Foundation is funding basic science to better understand the trillions of life forms invisible to the naked eye in our homes and workplaces, hospitals and schools – any form of built environment – office buildings, airplanes, subways systems, you name it.

Why study the built environment?

People spend more than 90% of their time indoors, where we breathe in and come in contact with trillions of microorganisms – life forms invisible to the naked eye. These tiny creatures live inside and have probably been there from the beginning of construction. But they also come in through windows and mechanical systems such as heating and air-conditioning systems, and are brought inside by humans and other creatures, which are constantly shedding microbes.

Our homes and workplaces, hospitals and schools are quite literally complex ecosystems filled with a variety of microbes. Given the amount of time we spend indoors it’s important to understand what is living in these environments, how these microorganisms interact, what the potential implications are for human health, both positive and negative.  We may also learn things that could influence building construction practices and inform other industrial processes.

How is the built environment different than the natural environment such that it requires its own field of study?

The built environment is often highly controlled by mechanical systems, things like air filtration systems, heating systems and the like. To understand the microbiology of the built environment it not only takes the expertise of biologists, but other disciplines such as engineering and architecture as well. There are unique variables that do not exist in the natural environment, so the Sloan Foundation is bringing together researchers in these diverse fields to work together.

Why now?

Scientific advances have led to tools such as rapid low-cost DNA sequencing that allow researchers to take air, water, dust and other samples and identify the microbes that are present. Together with more traditional microbiological approaches we can now start to identify and categorize these life forms in important new ways.

How did you decide to study the microbiology of the built environment?

Well, before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was concerned about the threat of bioterrorism. As such, we were working to understand the role air filtration could play in the event of a biological threat. It didn’t take long to realize that we needed to understand what microorganisms were normally living in the buildings if we hoped to be able to identify anything unusual in the air.

You say that these indoor spaces are ecosystems; aren’t ecosystems by definition naturally occurring?

No, an ecosystem by definition is a system of living and nonliving components, intimately interacting.  Buildings are not static entities; they are quite literally unique ecosystems. We know both living and nonliving things exist, interact and are linked in a variety of ways. I think the idea of buildings as ecosystems is transformative. It opens up the possibility of operating, designing, and envisioning spaces in very new ways.

What have you learned so far?

Among the things we are finding is that the indoor environment looks a lot like humans do.  It has microbes in it that are commonly associated with human skin and saliva. And, that’s because people are constantly shedding and acquiring, indeed sharing microbes. Human beings are composed of ten times as many microbial cells as human cells – let that sink in for a minute.

It is exciting research.

What do you hope to accomplish?

Today, architects and biologists are working together in ways previously unheard of to think about buildings using an ecosystem framework. This in and of itself is an advancement in scientific inquiry. And while it would be a mistake to try and predict with certainty what will be discovered on this scientific frontier, we are building a body of research: a guide, if you will, much like any nature field guide that will tell us what life forms are there.
This guide to the microbiology of the built environment will identify and categorize what is living in the built environment, where we spend most of our time; it will describe how the life forms and their various communities interact among themselves and with humans. This is scientific inquiry in its purest sense. While it is hard to say what we will find, the opportunity exists to promote the growth of some species and inhibit the growth of others – just like we do with wildlife in national parks. In this case, however, there is the potential to impact human health.

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