What is microBEnet?
The microbiology of the Built Environment network, or microBEnet, is a project funded by a grant from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program on the Indoor Environment. The main goals of the microBEnet project are to:
- Catalyze communication and collaboration among researchers funded in the Sloan Program on the Indoor Environment.
- Reach out to researchers in related fields (e.g., microbial ecology, building sciences) and provide them with resources that would help them begin to study microbiology of the built environment.
- Provide outreach to “stakeholders” outside of these fields (e.g., the general public, funding agency representatives, government staffers)
How can I find out more about microBEnet?
- More information can be found at https://microbe.net.
- We published a paper about microBEnet in 2014: Bik HM, Coil DA, Eisen JA (2014) microBEnet: Lessons Learned from Building an Interdisciplinary Scientific Community in the Online Sphere. PLoS Biol 12(6): e1001884. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001884
- Some videos of talks about microBEnet are listed below:
Who runs microBEnet?
The lab of Jonathan Eisen at the University of California, Davis runs microBEnet.
How do I learn more about the microbiology of the built environment?
By exploring this website you can find numerous resources (reference collections, researchers in the field, web resources for microbiology, etc.) relating to the field, “simple guides” on background information, as well as social media outlets and our blog. See also upcoming events in the field, and information about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funding that drives much of this research.
How is the microbiology of the built environment different from the rest of microbiology?
Microbes in the built environment have been studied less than the microbes of many natural environments (certain pathogens being the exception). The built environment is usually occupied by people, carrying around complex ecosystems of microbes that are in constant exchange with their surroundings. This means that both the composition and the turnover of microbes in the built environment are probably very different from the more well-studied natural environments.
What are the practical applications of this research?
Right now, most work in the field of “microbiology of the built environment” focuses on either understanding known pathogens, or identifying which microbes are present and how they relate to each other. Work on pathogens has obvious health implications, and a great deal of work has been done on pathogens, particularly in hospitals. A deeper understanding of the microbial ecology of the built environment may also lead to advances in forensics, biodefense, materials design, “green” buildings, and other areas.
Longer-range projects aim to apply the knowledge gained from basic research to building design and construction. Buildings of the future may be built with more consideration of microbiology, from the design and choice of materials to “probiotics for buildings,” in which beneficial and harmless microbes are intentionally placed in a new building to establish a healthy microbial community.
A focus on the microbiology of the built environment has created the need for development of new technologies. There is a current need for better air sampling devices, better software tools for data analysis, and the ability to accurately and cheaply measure environmental parameters indoors.
Which factors of the built environment affect the presence or absence of microbes there?
Environmental factors, such as availability of nutrients, humidity, temperature, airflow, and surface materials can all affect the distribution of microbes. More human-related factors also play a role, such as what a building is used for, how many people come in and out, and what cleaning protocols and chemicals are used. Categorizing these factors, and understating how they influence microbial ecology, are goals of this field.
Are all microbes found in the built environment dangerous?
Certainly not. In fact, the vast majority of microbes are harmless to humans. Some of them are beneficial, and relatively few are dangerous (“pathogenic”). Understanding which microbes fall into which categories, and understanding the relationship between all these organisms is one of the goals of this field.
What are the characteristics of an indoor environment that are most likely to result in the presence of microbes?
All environments, indoor or otherwise, are home to large numbers of microbes. Microbes are capable of surviving miles underground, in radioactive waste, and in space. However, the presence of water and nutrients are very often associated with the presence of microbes in the indoor environment. Mold and mildew are the most visible members of the microbial community that thrive on excess water. There is a known correlation with visible water and/or measurable dampness and negative health effects. However, the actual link or cause is completely unknown.
What are the connections, if any, between the fungi, bacteria, and viruses found inside a typical building?
Microbes do not normally live in isolation. They are usually part of a complex microbial community. Many bacteria and fungi attack or help each other, and are themselves hosts for numerous viruses, which can benefit or harm their hosts. “Microbial Ecology” is the area of research that focuses on understanding these communities.
Microbial ecology has important implications for indoor environments. It highlights the importance of studying all the microbes present in a community, as opposed to culturing single organisms. Several studies have shown that dangerous bacteria can be made harmless or more virulent, depending on the other microbes in their environment.
Research on the microbial ecology of the built environment is at a very preliminary stage and will be an exciting and critical part of understanding the environments in which we spend most of our time.