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Biological Sciences Division

October 2016

For NAS, Jansson Weighs in on Microbiomes of the Built Environment

Jansson gut microbiome
Mouse gut cryo-section, showing the host intestinal epithelial cell nuclei (red) and the bacteria in the lumen (green).

Microbiologists fervently study the teeming and complex microbiome of both soils and the human gut. But not so much the interiors of the built environment, where most humans spend 90 percent of their time. Homes, hospitals, workplaces, transit systems, and other constructed interior spaces are similarly inhabited by ubiquitous and invisible communities of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Microbial ecologist Janet Jansson is part of a 20-month study underway on microbiomes of the built environment sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Executing the study, in part through a series of national meetings, are experts in microbial ecology, building science, public health, and related fields. On Oct. 17 and 18, Jansson - a renowned researcher of both soil and gut microbiomes - will be at the University of California, Irvine for NAS's third meeting on the issue.

The largely mysterious life of microbiomes within built environments is both important and little studied (though the effects of indoor mold are well known). Inside constructed environments, most microbial communities are non-pathogenic, thriving peacefully on surfaces and within air and water systems. Nonetheless, resident microbiomes can have both good and bad effects on how long built environments last, how energy efficient they are, how they must be maintained, and how conducive they are to human health. 

During the meeting's first panel, Jansson will be the first of three scientists delivering remarks on how the built environment responds to "context and perturbations". She will discuss microbial community response to environmental conditions, and will describe the research mission of Microbiomes in Transition, an initiative she directs at PNNL.

The dynamics of microbes in the built environment were also explored at a 2015 symposium held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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