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House of Microbes

Humans have become an indoors species, and ecologists and microbiologists are beginning to sample such built environments to get to know what microbes live with people in their homes and other building, as the New York Times reports.

Noah Fierer from the University of Colorado Boulder has sampled a handful of kitchens, reporting in Environmental Microbiology earlier this year that kitchens are home to diverse bacterial communities that arise from a number of sources. "Human skin was the primary source of bacteria across all kitchen surfaces, with contributions from food and faucet water dominating in a few specific locations," Fierer and his colleagues write. Fierer is now, the Times notes, working with North Carolina State University's Rob Dunn to swab surfaces in more than 1,400 homes in the US.

By better understanding what is typically found in a home or other built environment, the researchers aim to determine how variables like ventilation, building materials, and cleaning habits affect the microbial populations. In addition, they may then be better situated to determine when something is amiss.

"If there's a biological threat," says Paula Olsiewski, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, "you're probably looking for a needle in a haystack — but what's the haystack? What's going on in a building?"

Further, Jack Gilbert from the University of Chicago, the Times adds, is leading the Hospital Microbiome Project to try to determine how patients affect, and are affected by, the microbes of the hospital to try to cut down on nosocomial infections. "The whole reason for doing this study is to stop people from dying," Gilbert says.