What's Next Health: New Microbiome Health Research Puts the ‘Cell’ Back in Cell Phone

Jun 24, 2014, 12:13 PM, Posted by

What’s Next Health guest Jessica Green, founding director of the BioBE (Biology and the Built Environment Center), visited RWJF last year to discuss the health implications of the microbiome—the invisible collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea that live on, in and all around us. Watch Jessica’s What's Next Health interview to learn more about microbiomes in the built environment and how that knowledge can be used to design spaces and buildings to create a healthier, more sustainable world.

During her visit, Jessica led an educational workshop where staff swabbed their fingers and mobile phones to learn about the relationship between the microscopic communities living on both. The findings from that educational workshop turned out to be quite interesting, and ultimately led to a study published today in the journal PeerJ. Senior Program Officer Deborah Bae caught up with Jessica to learn more about her research.

Deborah: When we hear the term microbe, many of us think about germs that cause disease. So what is the microbiome, and why is it important in promoting health?

Jessica: Twenty years ago, when I was an environmental engineering student, I learned that microbes were pollutants or contaminants, and were something that you wanted to eliminate, particularly in the indoor environment. And we know from history that being in a very unclean, unsanitary environment kills people. What we’ve learned more recently is that for every human cell, we have up to ten bacterial cells and even more viruses living on the human body. There's a rising consensus that aspects of this microbiome can be beneficial to human health. Some of these microorganisms help our immune system function, ward off pathogens and infections, and microbes in our gut may be even linked to the way that we think and feel.

That leads me to think about all the articles saying we need to disinfect everything. People have this misperception that microbiomes—and the more colloquial term, germs—are everywhere, and that germs are bad. Could this push to sterilize everything be killing off good germs and actually not promoting health?

People are beginning to wonder if overusing antibiotics and over-cleaning the built environment and ourselves is removing microbes that are really important to our health. Given that we can’t live in a sterile environment, and probably wouldn’t want to anyway, how can we manage the environments that we live in to promote the growth of microbes that foster health and well-being?

Your recently published study found that our cell phones actually reflect our human microbiome. What inspired you to do this project?

I've been interested in microbiome research for nearly a decade, so I've studied microbes in marine environments, in terrestrial environments, and more recently, I've been interested in the built environment microbiome, the complex microbial communities found in buildings. I've also been thinking about this concept of the “personal microbiome” that's associated with your personal effects. I don't know about you, but I take my phone with me wherever I go, and when I was visiting the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation I really got interested in the concept of using a personal effect like your phone to be able to measure the complex bacterial communities that are on us all the time. I've been trying to think of ways to survey individuals in a non-invasive way. I could imagine using our personal effects as a sensor in health care settings to understand the source and spread of different groups of microbes, for example. Or at much larger scales, using bio-sensors combined with public health data to help us understand how different urban planning decisions­­—for example, comparing green spaces with a concrete-laden environment—relate to the health of people living in those neighborhoods.

Can you walk us through what you did and help us understand some of the findings?

So, I held a workshop that taught everyone how to collect their own microbiome samples using something like a Q-tip to swab their hands and phones. Then we took those samples to my lab and identified the different types of bacteria using standard DNA sequencing technology. And we discovered that the phone microbiome is really diverse. There are thousands of different types of bacteria on our phones, and there’s a significant amount of overlap between what's found on your phone and what's on your fingers. So if you consider all of the different types of bacteria found on an individual’s phone and those on their hand, we found about a 20% overlap in the types of microbes that they shared. And the last thing we found was that you share more bacteria with your own phone than with anyone else's phone. So that makes your phone biologically identifiable as yours.

At RWJF we talk about health happening where you live, work, learn and play. So how does our human microbiome interact with our health and our environment?

We're definitely still in the really early stages of understanding how the human microbiome influences our health. We know that we pick up microbes from our mothers when we're born; we know that we exchange microbes with people that we come into direct physical contact with. It's reasonable to assume that we pick up microbes from the built environment, as well. And my long-term vision is to really understand the nature of picking up microbes from our surrounding environment and how this exposure affects our health. This study could be a first step in learning if it’s possible to use personal effects like our cell phones to understand when and where we're picking up microbes that are good for human well-being. And if it’s possible to design or engineer the built environment in such a way that it can foster wellness.

Part of the reason we're so interested in your work is because you're trying to marry engineering with microbiology, ecology and design. And I love this question of how we can design the indoor environment to promote beneficial microbes and inhibit harmful ones. Can you talk about signs of progress that you're seeing in this direction?

We've made a lot of progress in this area in the last five years, in part because of the vision of Paula Olsiewski at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and their Microbiology of the Built Environment program. When I first started working with the Sloan Foundation, the questions that we wanted to answer were very basic. For example, do the choices that engineers and designers make about the indoor environment have an effect on the types and distributions of microbes indoors? And the resounding answer was yes. So we know that the choices engineers make about ventilation impact what kinds of microbes are airborne inside. We know that the choices designers make about the types of materials used indoors will impact the kinds of microbial communities that we have inside. So the next step is really to link this innovative work that's relating design and indoor microbial ecology, to health. And I think that there are a lot of ways to approach that grand challenge.   

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

Infographic: Our Microbial Neighborhood