Shared post by Rachel Adams & James Meadow
As intrepid scientists working to understand the interactions between humans, buildings, and the microbes we share, a recently published review paper caught our attention. The piece, Recent Advances in the Microbiology of the Built Environment, by Konya and Scott, set out to synthesize what has been learned in the short time that high-throughput sequencing has been applied to indoor microbes. Taking stock of a rapidly growing field is a valuable endeavor, and we appreciate the way the authors place recent work on indoor bacteria and fungi on the longer arc of research in the area.
However, we felt that some aspects of the paper were a bit out of place and worthy of a response. The authors main thesis seems to have been that “Most modern studies on the microbiology of the built environment … [have] done little thus far to advance our understanding of the functional nature, ecological interactions, health and lifestyle implications, and building science determinants of the built environment as a microbial habitat.” In fact, they go as far as to claim that recent papers in the field add “… little if anything to the much earlier findings of Carnelley et al. (1887).” We, on the contrary, would argue for a more positive take on the state of the field.
We agree with the authors that MoBE studies up to now have been largely descriptive in nature – high-throughput-based surveys have refined what we knew from previous culture-based work. We disagree, however, that these contributions have been in any way insignificant simply because they agree with historical research. As a general approach to scientific discovery, we argue that hypothesis-driven discovery paves the way for hypothesis-driven experimentation. In the case of MoBE, these early studies have enabled experimental projects that are currently ongoing in our and other research groups. By calibrating our own understanding of what a normal indoor microbial community (e.g., in a classroom or a residence) should look like, we can, for example, better predict which building science parameters may alter the indoor microbiome or better understand the ecological context for those microbes with health and lifestyle implications. The truth is that at this point we still know little about how human- and building health are related to indoor microbial communities. Thus recent studies, albeit descriptive ones, have presented an ideal starting point from which to tackle these larger goals through more integrated studies.
But aside from the dismissal of hypothesis-driven discovery (and some technical inaccuracies that are not discussed here), we find the most eyebrow-raising aspect of Konya and Scott’s review piece to be the hyperbolic tone aimed at colleagues with the MoBE field. Our field is radically multidisciplinary – it requires thoughtful input from architects, building scientists, engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and ecologists. Recognizing the importance of each other’s perspectives and focusing on how different viewpoints can work in concert, we argue, is a more constructive way to advance a vibrant field of scientific inquiry.