A UO Team Leads the Way in One of Biology’s Hottest Specialties

In a recent TEDx talk she gave before a Portland audience, microbiologist Jessica Green described the ecosystem of a typical indoor space and the trillions of diverse microorganisms that interact with each other, with humans, and with their environment.

“Buildings are complex ecosystems that are an important source of microbes—some of which are good for us, some of which are bad,” Green said.

A TED fellow, Green is an associate professor of biology who directs the UO’s Biology and the Built Environment (BioBE Center), a national research center funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

With their research into the microbial ecosystems of indoor spaces, Green and her colleagues are shedding new light on one of science’s final frontiers. Although humans in the developed world spend 90 percent of their lives in enclosed buildings, Green says we know very little about the biology of the built environment. The research is just beginning, but already the group’s findings are challenging the view that biodiversity research only belongs in places like the tropics.

“All the beauty one would experience outdoors is inside as well,” said Brendan Bohannan, an expert in the microbes of the Amazon rainforest who directs the UO Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IE2) and has turned his sights to studying indoor environments as a member of the BioBE team.

Just a few years ago, the research coming out of the BioBE Center would not have even been possible, but advances in microbial genomics now offer the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the “built environment microbiome”—the totality of microbial cells, their genetic elements, and their interactions indoors. In just a short time, the field of “indoor ecology” has become a hot specialty of biology, and UO scientists are leading the way by looking at entire communities of microbes rather than just looking at one pathogen in isolation. The BioBE team was recently featured in a Discover Magazine cover story, which described the center as “a global hub for research into the biology of the great indoors.”

The goal of the BioBE project is to promote human health and environmental sustainability by optimizing the design and operation of buildings, which is one of the reasons the team’s core triumvirate includes architect G.Z. “Charlie” Brown. The director of the UO’s Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory (ESBL), Brown is an expert in sustainable buildings. His involvement ensures that the discoveries made by the BioBE team inform the design of the hospital or office building of tomorrow.

“Hospitals often try to solve problems of indoor air quality and infection transmission with highventilation rates that exaggerate heating and cooling, causing increased energy use,” Brown says. “We’ve got a lot of material on airflow, but very little on microorganisms.”

Based on the numbers, which show thousands of deaths each year due to hospital-acquired infections, new approaches are needed to create a healthy indoor ecosystem. The BioBE team is studying what will improve the indoor environment by sampling the air inside test sites like the UO’s sustainably built Lundquist College of Business and a Portland hospital. A recently completed test chamber at ESBL’s Portland lab provides them with a venue in which they can precisely control temperature, airflow, humidity, and other variables.

It’s too early to draw conclusions from the BioBE team’s findings, but Green is willing to speculate. She believes the architects of tomorrow will use complex microbiological biological data as a design tool to help create more sustainable and healthier spaces for us to live, work, and play.