Remember in elementary school science class when we put samples of our hair and saliva in Petri dishes to see what grew? We even used cotton swabs to test the surfaces of our desks and bacteria grew in a few days. These experiments were designed to show us that we have lots of bacteria inside and on our bodies – and all around us. There are microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) everywhere in our “built environment” – the buildings we live and work in – as seen in this incredible animation.
Research suggests that the microbes in our guts play an important role in the development of disease. This collection of organisms, referred to as the microbiome (although technically the collection of organisms is called the microbiota and the genes of those organisms are called the microbiome), may play a role in the development of many diseases including diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, allergies, Crohn’s disease, autism and cancer.
There are actually more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells. The first organisms are introduced into our bodies when we pass through the birth canal (unless we were delivered by Cesarean section). Then the microbes continue to develop in response to what we eat, use of antibiotics and what is in our environments (such as pets). Studies have shown that people living in the same house have similar bacteria in and on their bodies. The full microbiome develops over the first few years of life and then stays pretty much the same for years. I’ve written before about research that suggests that changes in our diets and overuse of antibiotics have contributed to alterations in our microbiome leading to the development of disease.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing number of products on the market to keep the surfaces around us free of germs – hand sanitizers, antimicrobial soaps, etc. But have our attempts to clean up our environment, made us less healthy? Researchers are studying how our “built environment” affects our microbiome. Most people in the developed world spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. So microbiologists are working with designers and architects to figure out how to design buildings that promote safer microbes. This may be especially important in designing hospitals to keep the harmful bacteria from infecting patients.
In a recent study, Dr. Jessica Green and her colleagues found that the microbes on our cell phones reflect the microbes in our bodies. This may make it easier to test the organisms in the body. She and her colleagues are also looking at ways we can design buildings to promote the growth of healthy microbes that we aren’t usually exposed to indoors. And perhaps we can introduce microbes that are present on farms and in green environments so we can keep people in urban environments more healthy.
We have known for awhile that we need to keep the microbes in our guts in a healthy balance. But we also need to look at ways the microbes in our environment can help us achieve the healthy balance.