Note added by Jonathan Eisen: This is a guest post from UC Davis graduate student Srijak Bhatnagar.
So sometime this year I was at ASM 2012. The big’ol conference where who’s who of Microbiology descended on San Francisco. Amidst the rush of hoards of people moving from session to session, lining up along the hallway floors with their laptops and almost endless rows of posters everyday across various topics, the prominence of microbial diversity was very evident. People were surveying microbes of the earth far and wide, that of people big and tall, diseased and healthy and most interesting of all, different tribal races. These studies have picked up quite a pace and are helping us fill in… drum roll… the tree of life. As the jigsaw pieces become available we’re able to put together the map of microbial world. But now only the focus is shifting from whom to what and why. What are they doing there? Why are they there? The next frontier is to go beyond the catalogue of names and look into the metabolic and functional diversity and the microbial interaction networks.
But there are still important areas where the microbial surveys have lagged; one such field is “the great indoors”. We spent a vast amount of time indoors, at least in North America and EU. This is a niche environment in itself and that’s what this whole site is dedicated to. The Sloan foundation funded project Microbiology of Built Environment is tasked with mapping the microbial atlas of our homes, offices, buildings, garages and anything that we built. There was a whole session hosted by them. It underscored the importance of such a project; it’s extent and the vast amount of resources, the people, the universities and the sampling sites, at play. It highlighted for me that how we are surrounding ourselves with a selected few microbes, many of which are human associated. We’re circulating these microbes through our air conditioners, heaters and pool filtration systems. Some of the talks that caught me in this session were studies of hotel surfaces (Eww comes to mind) and drinking water delivery networks (Ohh the horror). I need not remind anyone of the findings pertaining to the hotel surfaces, but a good amount of precaution is needed to ensure what our treatments and chlorination is selecting for in our drinking water supply. With the increasing instances and reports of allergies, sensitivities and lack of general wellness. It got me wondering how the microbes in my home are playing part in my wellbeing or the lack thereof. This project has the potential to be a great citizen science project. The participation from public in sampling their houses could allow us to potentially link the geography, the habits of people, their cleaning supplies and may be even building materials to microbes. Probiotic paint anyone? Its project like which will make for a successful involvement of people and instill scientific curiosities in the children of today and scientists of tomorrow. I look forward to what comes of this project.