What’s Next Health: Microbiomes Where we Live, Work, Learn and Play

Sep 4, 2013, 12:30 PM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers about the future of health and health care. Recently, we talked with Jessica Green, founding director of the BioBE (Biology and the Built Environment Center), to explore how a better understanding of the microbiome in our built environment might lead to healthier buildings and healthier lives.

By Jessica Green

We’ve known for some time about the invisible microbes in us and around us—small organisms including viruses, bacteria and fungi. There was a time when most believed that these microbes were all bad for us. After all, they were the ones responsible for getting us sick. But now, we know that many microbes are either benign or actually beneficial to us.

As a nuclear engineer, I had experience modeling things I couldn’t see. When I learned people were modeling biological systems showing how microbes interact with each other—systems we know as microbiomes—and using big data to understand them and how they affect us, I was immediately intrigued. When I thought about microbes in the context of my interest in conservation and biodiversity, I became hooked. And I am not alone. This is a rapidly growing field and through our collective work, we have been learning more and more about the potential of microbiomes to be agents of health, especially in their work to support vital functions in and on the body. Now we are also starting to examine and rethink how microbes move among us and our surroundings and what this means for how we design our built environments.

People in the developed world will spend 90% percent of their lives indoors. Cars, work, school, shopping malls. The way we've been thinking about and designing our built environment—building our homes and offices to keep “things out”—may mean we are limiting the benefit that a diverse microbiome can offer. We are already seeing it is possible to make design choices that promote exposure to microbiomes that are more diverse, and potentially healthier, and suppress exposure to microbes that we don’t want to have around. For example, we know that buildings naturally ventilated with techniques like window ventilation saw a more diverse community of microbiomes than those relying on mechanical ventilation. 

Right now, when choosing a new home or neighborhood, it is not uncommon to look at a factor like air quality. I don't think the day is too far off when we will also have metrics to consider the healthiness of microbiomes in a neighborhood or a building when making decisions about where we live, or where our kids learn and play. I'd speculate that within a decade, the invisible microbiome will become one more visible determinant of health.

A recent correlative study showed that children had a lower risk of being susceptible to allergies when they lived in homes surrounded by agricultural land versus urban spaces. Children in these green environments also had a different composition of bacteria on their skin. We are only just beginning to understand the relationship between our microbiomes and our health. It is going to take a much greater understanding of how microbiomes move and operate in our built environment before we do get to a place where they regularly factor into our environmental decisions. 

To get there we must gather information on the role microbiomes play in our health in parallel with research on building and product design. As we learn how design influences the invisible components of places or things, and combine these two sets of data, we will eventually have the ability to design our neighborhoods, buildings and homes in ways that help create the healthiest environments for people and the planet.

To learn more about Jessica’s ideas, visit What’s Next Health to watch a conversation with Jessica and RWJF’s Deborah Bae and view an infographic on microbiome’s impact on our environments. You can also hear more below in the fifth episode of the Pioneering Ideas podcast.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.