New report outlines research agenda for microbiomes, indoor environments, and human health
WASHINGTON – Even with a growing body of research on microorganisms and humans in indoor environments, many of their interconnections remain unknown, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report proposes a research agenda to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the formation, dynamics, and functions of indoor microbiomes that can guide improvements to current and future buildings as well as enhance human health and well-being.
The indoor environments described in the report are spaces such as homes, offices, and schools–the places where people spend most of their time. Microbiomes found in these built environments comprise viruses, bacteria, and fungi that enter a building through its air and water system, are found on pets, plants, and rodents, and is in dirt that is tracked indoors. These microorganisms also live on human skin and in the digestive tract and are shed into the indoor environment.
Available evidence shows that the relationship between indoor microbiomes and human health is complex with effects ranging from harmful to beneficial to neutral. For example, while certain microbes found in damp or water-damaged buildings are associated with respiratory problems, studies also show that children exposed to some microbes early in life are less likely to develop wheezing or allergic disease. The report says in-depth human studies and laboratory animal-model investigations can help improve understanding of the association between exposure to microbes found in indoor spaces and diverse health impacts.
A multidisciplinary research program is necessary to make progress toward understanding and predicting the interactions between microbiomes found in indoor environments and humans, including how such associations change with interventions that affect the physical and chemical characteristics of buildings, the report says. The program will require integrating expertise from multiple scientific, health, and engineering disciplines, including clinical practitioners and professionals in building design, operation, and maintenance.
Once these associations are better understood, the report says, it will be important to translate the knowledge into practice: actions such as updating guidance, standards, and codes for building design and operation.
"At this time, we do not know enough to manage the microbial communities around us in the indoor environment rationally," said Joan Wennstrom Bennett, Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University and chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report. "However, this is a good time to assess this emerging area of disciplinary integration, explore what has been accomplished through research so far, and identify directions in which the field might go in the future."
Research priorities identified in the report include:
Characterize relationships among microbial communities and indoor systems
The interactions among indoor microbial communities and indoor environment air, water, and surfaces need further investigation to understand the sources, reservoirs, and transport of such microbes. Studies also should be conducted on human behaviors that influence indoor microbiomes.
Assess influence of exposures to indoor environmental microbes on human health
The relationships and connections between human health and microbial exposures need to be examined by developing studies that collect observational data and use controlled human exposures, animal models, and other approaches to test health-specific hypotheses. The report recommends creating exposure assessment approaches to address how combinations of exposures influence functional responses in different parts of the body–like the lungs, brain, and gut–at different stages of life.
Explore other impacts of interventions
In addition to health, understanding the environmental and economic impacts of interventions and the use of energy that change the human exposure to microbes in buildings needs to be improved.
Advance tools and research infrastructure for the field
Tools and methodologies for explaining the identity, abundance, activity, and functions of the microbial communities found in indoor environments, including new computation and mechanistic modeling tools to improve understanding, prediction, and management of microbial dynamics and activities in buildings, require refinement. The development of standards and a data commons is also important to increase access to knowledge and facilitate improved cross-study comparison.
Translate research to practice
Effective communication and engagement materials about microbes found in buildings are needed to convey information to diverse audiences including guidance for communities that professionally design, operate, and maintain buildings as well as clinical practitioners and homeowners.
The study was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A roster follows.
A public discussion featuring members of the committee will be held on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, at the National Academy of Sciences. Register to attend or to view the webcast at http://nas-sites.org/builtmicrobiome/.
MoBE 2017: Microbiology of the Built Environment Research and Applications Symposium will be held Oct. 10-12, 2017, at the National Academy of Sciences. Learn more at http://www.microbe.net/microbenet-past-events-meetings-workshops/upcoming-events/mobe_2017/.
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Copies of Microbiomes of the Built Environment: A Research Agenda for Indoor Microbiology, Human Health, and Buildings are available at http://www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Life Sciences
Committee on Microbiomes of the Built Environment: From Research to Application
Joan Wennstrom Bennett1 (chair)
Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology and Pathology
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
New Brunswick, N.J.
Jonathan E. Allen
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Research Team Leader
Field Studies Branch, Respiratory Health Division
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Group Leader for Microbial Ecology
Argonne National Laboratory; and
Department of Surgery
University of Chicago
Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School;
Brigham and Women's Hospital; and
Department of Environmental Health
T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Professor of Biology and Co-Director
Biology and Built Environment Center
University of Oregon; and
Chief Technology Officer
L.D. Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering and Head
Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering
Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering
University of Colorado
Eminent Scholar and Arthur R. Marshall Jr. Chair in Ecology
University of Florida
Building Ecology Research Group
Santa Cruz, Calif.
University Professor of Architecture
College of Fine Arts
Carnegie Mellon University
J. Craig Venter Institute
Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and Director
Environmental Engineering Graduate Studies
New Haven, Conn.
Energy and Environment Division
National Institute of Standards and Technology
George Lynn Cross Research Professor
Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology, and
Institute for Environmental Genomics
University of Oklahoma
1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering