Discover Magazine sheds light on UO center's work on indoor ecosystems

A collaboration between University of Oregon scientists and a sustainable buildings expert is the subject of an article appearing in the July/August issue of Discover Magazine.

The story, titled "Earth's Last Unexplored Wilderness is … Your Living Room," examines the emerging field of indoor ecology, and details how scientists at the UO's Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE) Center are studying the microbial environment of built spaces and the implications for the design of homes, hospitals and other buildings.

"We live nearly 90 percent of our lives indoors, but we know almost nothing about that environment," the UO's Jessica Green, a theoretical ecologist who heads the BioBE Center, says in the article. "We don't think about the wildlife in the air because we can’t see it. But it's here."

The story paints a picture of microbes swirling around us like invisible indoor dust storms — even in the most seemingly sanitary spaces. According to Green, up to 10 million bacteria are in a cubic meter of indoor air. She and other scientists are examining indoor microbes not as individual pathogens, but as complex ecosystems. The research raises questions about the century-old human practice of destroying microbes with disinfectants and antibiotics.

"Maybe the path to indoor health is not a 'kill 'em all' approach, but one of encouraging a diverse ecosystem in which benign and beneficial microbes crowd out the pathogens," author Bruce Barcott writes, summing up the research.

The story highlights work by Green and microbiologist Brendan Bohannan, director of the UO's Institute of Ecology and Evolution, and their collaboration with G.Z. Brown, an expert on sustainable buildings and director of the UO's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory. Their work led to the foundation of the BioBE Center, which was launched with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation with the goal of improving understanding of the built environment by studying the totality of microbes.

“The collaborative efforts of these scientists and researchers from different disciplines are leading to exciting new discoveries at the BioBE Center,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation at the UO. “Together, they are uncovering the invisible diversity of life that is responsible for human health and the health of our planet.”