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Are humans infecting our buildings?

Are humans infecting our buildings?
07 Mar 2014

The bacteria on our body affect the buildings we live and work in more than previously thought, according to research published in the open access journal Microbiome.

Researchers at University of Oregon used genetic sequencing methods to characterise the distinct bacterial communities on the desks, walls, chairs and floor of a university classroom. They found bacteria from the gut and vagina on the chairs, and bacteria normally found in the mouth on the desks – they think those bacteria were probably from students breathing on the desk, rather than puddles of drool if they had fallen asleep!

James Meadow from the University of Oregon says: “It is pretty intuitive that we spill our microbes on everything we touch. Ask a kid about cooties; they could have predicted our results. However it is 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. I think we assumed we would find something like this, but the surprising part is that it is so clear and easy to detect.”

The researchers collected samples from the desks, walls, chairs and floor of a classroom on one day, after the classroom had been in daily use for a week. They sequenced a particular section of the genome to work out which bacteria were present in each of the locations, and what source it had probably come from.

The bacteria on the classroom desks included those found in the mouth, infected pus and, strangely, pond water, while the chairs carried bacteria normally found in the gut, vagina and urinary tract. The scientists also looked at the walls, finding bacteria normally found in soil and drinking water. The floor bacteria were those found on plant surfaces, and human blood.

The scientists were clear though, that these bacteria are just the normal bacteria that occur everywhere, rather than ones which might cause disease.

James Meadow says: ”I think that one of the most important things about studies like this is the realization that we've been coming into contact with other people's microbiomes for a very long time without knowing it. And plenty of evidence has come out recently that our human microbiomes need an occasional infusion to remain in balance. Maybe surfaces like those we studied are part of an important inoculation process that keeps us healthy. That, however, remains to be seen.”


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Notes to Editor

1. Bacterial communities on classroom surfaces vary with human contact
James F Meadow, Adam E Altrichter, Steven W Kembel, Maxwell Moriyama, Timothy K O'Connor, Ann M Womack, G Z Brown, Jessica L Green and Brendan JM Bohannan
Microbiome 2014, 2:7
After embargo, article available at the journal website here:

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. See the following film produced by the University of Oregon researchers about this work. Please credit use of the film to Biology and the Built Environment Center (BioBE).
3. Co-author Jessica Green’s TED talk on the microbiome of the built environment.
4. The central purpose of Microbiome is to unite investigators conducting microbiome research in environmental, agricultural, and biomedical arenas.
5. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector. @BioMedCentral