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Learning to Tend Our Microbial Gardens

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ecologist Jessica Green thinks of indoor air as a microbial garden, and she thinks architects and biologists can collaborate to make our indoor environments much healthier for humans.

In a TEDx talk, Green describes what we are doing to indoor air now. She calls it "microbial genocide.” We seal the buildings and use air conditioning and filtration systems to make sure outdoor microbes don’t get in. People come in bringing millions of microbes shedding from their bodies and they stir up the microbial dust languishing every surface. We keep the temperature and humidity in the same narrow range. And then, she says, we regularly kill every organism we can with antimicrobial cleaning products. "If you had a garden,” she says, "you’d never kill everything in it to get rid of one weed.”

Microbes—bacteria, viruses and archaea—are the most abundant organisms on earth, and while some make us sick, our bodies need many of them to protect us from pathogens, and boost our immune systems. They even influence our moods. "When you clean the organisms from an ecosystem,” she explains, "you make space for the weedy and fast growing organisms to come in and colonize those spaces.”

Green is an associate professor at the University of Oregon, and a co-founder of the university’s Biology and Built Environment Center. She began her career researching microbes in the Arctic and other exotic places. She also had background in civil and environmental engineering and she realized examining the built environment where we spend 90 percent of our time would make her research relevant to issues surrounding sustainability, design and human health. A Discover Magazine story by Bruce Barcott reports that G.Z. "Charlie” Brown, a colleague at the University of Oregon and an expert in sustainable buildings, wanted research data to influence a new generation of hospitals on how energy-saving ventilation systems could also produce healthier hospital air. Green persuaded the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to put up the money and the BioBE Center was born.

The Discover story describes Green as an adventurous scientist and a fearless athlete. She was known as Thumper Biscuit in her Roller Derby competition days. A Forbes magazine story by Bruce Upbin explains she and her colleagues have worked with architectural modeling software, genetic sequencing, and microbial ecology to map the microbiomes of the built environment. "We’ve learned that architects are impacting what microbes live where,” she told Forbes. "It’s a new dimension of their work.” Surfaces of desks, for example, foster microbial colonies that differ from the colonies living on walls near air conditioning vents.

In research relevant to hospitals, Green and colleagues compared microbial environments in rooms with open windows and sealed rooms with mechanical ventilation systems. In a TED talk, she says green buildings, designed to let outside air in, fostered a diverse microbial mix that included organisms one finds outdoors in plants and soil, and a higher likelihood of organisms that promote health. In rooms with mechanically ventilated air, the microbial populations were less diverse, and more akin to the populations associated with humans, and had a higher probability of carrying pathogens.

In microbial populations, as in agriculture, monocultures tend to be unhealthy. People eat probiotic yogurt for health, and the same principle may apply to interior spaces. The Forbes story says Ford has contacted Green about design to foster health-promotion organisms inside its cars and trucks. "There are organisms that make our skin more supple and smooth,” Green told Forbes. "I can totally see it: the probiotic steering wheel.”

Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last 60 years or so have we spent most of our time in hermetically sealed indoor environments, Green observes. She among the scientists pioneering the research to learn what that means. One possibility she speculates, is that "We are growing a microbial monoculture, and our bodies probably have not evolved to function well in this microbial environment.” Some evidence suggests indoor living may be associated with antibiotic resistance and auto immune disorders such as asthma and allergies. Research by Green and others may lead to new floor plans, new ventilation systems, and new ways to grow robust, diverse and healthy microbial gardens inside our buildings. Green coauthored the paper Architectural Design Influences the Diversity and Structure of the Built Environment Microbiome.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  environment  health  systems 

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