UO center on quest to document indoor microbes, guide healthier buildings

James Meadow
James Meadow

Architects behind office buildings and classrooms may soon design buildings that are more accommodating to human health and well-being by understanding what biologists are learning about the various microbes found in today's buildings.

Researchers in the University of Oregon's Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center are among the early leaders in a field focusing on the microbiome of the indoor world, where people spend the majority of their time. Microbiome refers to the total makeup of microorganisms and their collective genetic material found in or on the human body or in another environment.

The research is not being done to find microbes that make people sick, says postdoctoral researcher James Meadow, but rather to help scientists understand how human movements and behaviors distribute microbes indoors.

The bacteria – which are identified by type using DNA analysis on a single gene – for the most part are those that occur normally, without disease association, on human skin and in the gut, and from plants, water and other outside environmental sources. Many are important to good health.

The BioBE Center's research so far has explored microbes in a Portland-area hospital and dust in various spaces in the UO's Lillis Hall. Last month, in the journal Indoors, the BioBE team detailed the presence of human-associated bacteria both indoors and outdoors of Lillis Hall. Those three studies provided valuable information about the impacts of ventilation systems.

In a new paper, published online March 7 in the journal Microbiome, the BioBE team documented the bacteria they found on desks, chairs, walls and floors of Lillis Hall.

The latest findings and implications for shaping health-promoting indoor environments are summarized in a BioBE Center video.

Most of the bacteria described in the Microbiome paper weren't surprising, although distinct communities of bacteria were identified on each of the four surfaces. Desks had bacteria from students' mouths. Nearby walls hosted bacteria from outdoor soil and water sources. Floors featured bacteria from plants, humans and water-cooling systems.

"I think results like this are interesting because being in a building is something we all have in common," Meadow said. "A lot of microbiologists might assume we already know most of this stuff. For that matter, ask a kid about cooties; they could have predicted our results. It is pretty intuitive that we spill our microbes on everything we touch. However, it is somewhat surprising that we can distinguish a chair from a desktop, just by the types of bacteria we find there and the way that we contact those surfaces."

The BioBE Center is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Microbiology of the Built Environment program.

For more information on research being done by the BioBE Center, view a TED Talk by Jessica Green on designing healthier buildings.

- by Jim Barlow, UO Office of Public Affairs Communication