Sloan Hopes to Shed Light on the Creepy Things Living in Your House

Think for a minute, but not too much longer than that, about the fact that even in the most spotless living room, kitchen, hospital or office, there is a teeming and complex ecosystem of microbes. Molds, mildews, bacteria, fungi, swarming on every surface in a microscopic community as intricate as a rainforest.

Then consider the fact that humans—little universes of microbes ourselves— spend 90% of our lives on average indoors. And yet, there is a surprisingly small body of research about the microbial world of the indoors. The Sloan Foundation’s youngest science research program is trying to remedy that, by bolstering the emerging field of Microbiology of Built Environments

Since its start in 2006, this Sloan program has made more than 64 grants for $28 million to study the issue, was recently expanded and refocused, and in 2012 started a series of conferences to convene grantees and other experts in the budding field. Much of Sloan’s science research funding is devoted to emerging or niche fields overlooked by large government funding agencies. Along those lines, the Built Environments program is hoping to boost the field of indoor microbial study to bring it out of the dark, musty corners and into the light of mainstream research.

Why is the study of indoor environments so important to Sloan? Most environmental health research is traditionally focused on natural environments or urban outdoor environments. In addition, while tools to study microbes have significantly advanced, they’ve also mostly been used for more exotic purposes—harsh locations like the very deep sea or polar ice. The built environment also awkwardly straddles environmental health, engineering, architecture and microbiology. So there’s been a gap in research of the places where we humans actually spend the vast majority of our time.  

Taking the field beyond this traditional scope, to truly begin cataloging and analyzing the millions of microscopic roommates living among us, could have profound benefits for our health and well being. It can also help us to construct our environments with a balanced abundance of microbes that increase our well being, and to reduce pathogens that threaten us. 

So Sloan’s program seeks to push forward research projects in this area, while building a cohesive community of scientists and other professionals such that the perceived value of the field, and resulting government support, are as strong as Sloan believes they should be.

The projects funded in recent years—to the tune of around $3 million a year—are impressive. Two 2012 grants focus on the microbial environments of hospitals— one comparing how such environments change in two different hospitals with the introduction of patients and doctors, the other on how neonatal ICU environments affect the gastrointestinal tracts of formerly sterile newborns.

A University of Colorado grant hits close to home, as environmental engineers will recruit 6,500 volunteers across the country to swab the interiors of their houses— door frames, kitchen countertops, pillowcases—to see what kind of microbial populations are camping out inside. This will build what could be the most complete snapshot of how microorganisms vary across households, depending on varying environmental conditions.

Researchers can then mine that dataset to test hypotheses about why certain microbe communities flourish in some places and not others. They can also share that data with the volunteer families, dooming them to a lifetime of constant washing of hands and bedsheets.