The hotel I’ve been staying at this week at the TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., markets its beds as being hypo-allergenic. As if that were possible. But let’s not fear microbes any longer. It is time to start embracing them. Resistance is futile anyway. They own us. The cells that make up our bodies are outnumbered within and on the surface of our skin by microorganisms by a factor of 10 to 1. There are trillions of them, and together with our own cells they make up what’s called the microbiome.
Anywhere you look and everything you touch comes with its own microbiome. Paper currencies are a common carrier of germs. I wrote a post a couple of years ago about a project called the BioWeather Map that procured paper currencies from all over the world and mapped the surface organisms in hopes of finding global disease patterns (unsuccessfully it turned out).
Now Jessica Green, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, is venturing out into the built environment (offices, malls, cars), where she’s using a combination of architectural modeling software, genetic sequencing and microbial ecology to map these microbiomes in the hopes of influencing their designs. “We’ve learned that architects are impacting what microbes live where,” says Green. The surfaces of desks, for example, foster different kinds of colonies than the walls near indoor air-conditioning vents. “It’s a new dimension to their work.”
While “sick-building syndrome” is a real issue, and very much in Green’s sights to eradicate, the idea is not to eliminate bugs entirely. That would be impossible. “Getting rid of microbes is yesterday’s idea,” says Green. “The question is how well can we colonize our surroundings with the good guys.”