Monday, May 21, 2012

Jessica Green: The Ecology of Indoor Environments

Microbes in the Modern World:

Image showing bacteria on our hands
Professor Green gave a talk that revealed an entire microscopic world that many of us forget exists.  This forgotten world is essential for the function of this planet and of our own bodies.  Microbes, microscopic organisms that blanket our bodies, inside and out, and every surface and being we come in contact with, regulate the world we know.  Microbes get a bad wrap for the ones that come to mind, and the ones most people know about, are the bad ones: the pathogens.  But, contrary to popular belief, most microbes work for us, not against us.   

Jessica’s research, and the subject of her presentation, focus on where microbes come from, how our primary environment, buildings, affects the composition of our microbes, and how our changing modern world influences microbial composition and how our bodies react to these changes.

As technology grows, especially in the developed world, sophisticated buildings have become the norm.  These buildings are isolated, closely regulated and cut-off from the outside world, thus controlling the microbes that enter, exit and survive within these primary habitats.  We are essentially growing a monoculture of microbes.  Additionally, these buildings are limiting our exposure to other microbial populations.

Professor Green discussed the effects of the monoculture of microbes and some of the consequences.  For one, she stresses that we do not understand the consequences these changes in microbial composition.  Her data, which focused on hospitals and even buildings here on the UO campus (i.e. Lillis), illustrated the completely different microbial populations that live outside in the soil, within completely mechanically ventilated buildings and within buildings with working windows. Some issues that have arisen so far from reduced exposure to microbes and the reduced diversity of those microbes are increased incidences of autoimmune disorders, including asthma and allergies, as well as increased antimicrobial resistance, which makes treatment more difficult and increases the spread of disease.  These increase causes us to wonder if our current practices are really the best for our health.  While getting rid of the pathogens makes logical sense, the rise of these health problems causes Jessica to pose the question: are we getting rid of the wrong microbes?  For more information on this issue watch the following TEDtalk by Professor Green:

As we see these problems crop up, Jessica asks us to consider a paradigm shift where instead of wiping out the microbial populations within our buildings as much as possible, we learn to manage and promote diversity of these organisms.  This would promote good microbes and help us to keep out the others.  We need to be reminded that the buildings we live in, the rooms we inhabit and even the computer on which you are reading this blog on are entire ecosystems of microbes.  Just as we want to try and preserve biodiversity in the ecosystems that we see and understand, biodiversity is important on the microbial level.  We must learn to protect and preserve microbial diversity before we have to learn what the negative consequences are of its loss.


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