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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

The Microbe-Friendly Office

March 14, 2014

microbeIn the constant struggle to deal with environmental change, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: don’t count out the little guys. Microbes, that is. In Conservation’s previous issue, Richard Conniff described how some microbes can clean up toxic waste and boost crop yields (“The Next Big Thing Is Really Really Small”). And back in Fall 2012, Rob Dunn presented research suggesting that living around more biodiversity could cultivate microbial communities that are beneficial to humans—and those “good” microbes might keep allergies and auto-immune diseases at bay (“Letting Biodiversity Get under Our Skin”).

According to new research published in PLoS ONE, building design can also influence the microbial communities around us. (1) Equipped with floor plans, a Shop-Vac®, and an eye for dust, researchers at the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center scoured offices, classrooms, equipment rooms, and restrooms to see how architecture influenced the microbes residing on indoor dust.

DNA analysis of each room’s dust samples revealed “extremely diverse” indoor bacterial communities. The makeup of the different communities depended on how the room was ventilated, how connected it was with other spaces, and how humans used the room.

Evidence for the health benefits of spending time outdoors is not hard to come by. However, our modern lives have us interacting with primarily indoor environments. “The impact of design decisions in structuring the indoor microbiome offers the possibility to use ecological knowledge to shape our buildings in a way that will select for an indoor microbiome that promotes our health and well-being,” the authors write.

1. Kembel, S.W. et al. 2014. PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087093.

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