(This is a guest post by David Thaler, who is one of the Sloan-funded investigators working on the microbiology of the built environment. The goal is to spark substantive discussion, so please comment below!)
A few thoughts after the Inaugural meeting of Microbiology of the Built Environment Boulder
My own opinions on these points are strong but to quote C. Wright Mills “I have tried to be objective, I do not pretend to be detached.”
1. There seems a tension between defining the incipient new field as limited to indoor air and surfaces of buildings or considering the entire city is the built environment.
My sense is that the entire city and transport systems between them are the “built environment”. The point that humans spend 90% of their time indoors is subservient to the fact that most of us spend 99.99% of our time in the “built environment”. If our clothes also constitute part of the built environment then the number is higher. Count the precious moments you have been naked in nature. (Perhaps our next meeting could allow for that experience which would emphasize how rare it is)
2. Most human-associated microbes are intestinal. I would be interested in estimates but my guess is a range of a million to one, i.e. about a million times more intestinal microbes than all others. It is a hypothesis that remains to be tested but almost certainly true that in a building most of the microbes are in and around the plumbing. If the city as a whole is considered, by hypothesis, most of its microbes are in its sewers.
My opinion is that one has to consider where the majority of microbes in the built environment actually are.
3. From the point of view of quantity of microbes in the built environment the meeting did not consider the vast majority. Why?
In part it may be historical, i.e. the meeting has roots in work for many years on indoor air quality and now microbiology with concerns about aerosol Bio Terror detection and protection. A problem arises when the field is expanded outwards in definition but doesn’t take account of the majority microbes encompassed by the larger definition.
It is not news that there are microbes inside sewer pipes. Is there potentially revolutionary- or at least important and interesting- science to do there? To understand and make a difference to the microbial aspect of the built environment means that the sewers must be taken on.
4. There is a tension or even a paradox between the idea that biomedical research is not the focus but, on the other hand, concern about human health, well being, productivity, and safety are important considerations and justifications.
In my opinion “Microbiology of the Built Environment” should encompass the human microbial output and its consequences for the environment. We should ‘keep the faith’ for fundamental science. Best practices should be encouraged on current knowledge even while articulating and acknowledging its limitations.