Sloan's Deep (and Kind of Gross) Probe Into the Microbes Crawling All Around You

Your home and office are teeming with trillions and trillions of microorganisms, and researchers are studying how design and architecture can shape these ecosystems of bugs for the better. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation owns this funding space, and just gave $1.3 million to a leading team. 

The Sloan Foundation just renewed support for the Biology and the Built Environment Center (BioBE) at the University of Oregon, which has become a national hub for a growing niche of research on the uncharted universes of microbes inside our buildings.  

Sloan’s past investment in the team has paid off, as the grantee’s findings from recent years alone have been consistently fascinating, if a little gross:

  • Researcher James Meadow found that our smartphones are stamped with our own personal microbiome, with more than 80 percent of the bacteria that make up each person’s microbial fingerprint showing up on our screens. As we touch our phones 150 times a day, they become little carriers of our personal blend of bacteria.
  • Meadow also conducted experiments in which he sat in a sealed “pickle box” for four hours straight, letting air filters capture all of the bacteria falling away from his body. The study is going toward designing ventilation systems that create the healthiest bacterial ecosystem in an indoor space.
  • BioBE director and former roller derby skater Jessica Green found that contact sports like derby are prime settings to monitor exchange of microorganisms among humans. She published a study finding that over the course of a bout, the bacteria populations living on two opposing teams converge.

Crazy stuff, right? But the really interesting part of BioBE’s work, and why Sloan is funding the field so heavily—it has an entire subprogram on the subject—is the idea that we can use design and architecture to manage our microbial health. Or as Meadow told Scientific American, “we may eventually get to a point where we can manage the indoor ecosystem the same way that we manage national parks.”

BioBE is using techniques like architectural software, genetic sequencing, and sitting in the pickle box to map how design decisions influence where these trillions of microbes live. The design of a building can make us sick, and Green and her team hope to figure out how to foster a healthier, “probiotic” built environment. There are implications for general wellness, hospital infection, and even sustainability.

The new grant from Sloan will further support this work. Next up is paying close attention to the connection between antimicrobial chemicals and antibiotic resistance.

If this sounds like a narrow focus for a science funder as large as Sloan, it is, and that’s the point. Sloan has assets of nearly $2 billion and gives to a unique mix of science communications (its name bookends some of your favorite public radio shows), data science, and some very specific research areas. For example, one program covers the study of carbon deep in the Earth’s interior. A recently completed program focused on synthetic biology. And the program on indoor environments made 23 grants in 2014.


This funder tends to hammer down on such specific areas, trying to cultivate scientific communities in under-studied or emerging fields. The built environment research field is growing, but is relatively small. Our knowledge is limited, especially considering we spend almost our entire lives indoors, steeped in these microbes.

While it’s not a huge amount relative to a funder like Sloan, the level of support it’s giving to BioBE is significant for the center, and has allowed it to gain a high profile in a short amount of time. Another $1.3 million will help Green and her team swab and vacuum up creepy crawlies from phones, toilets, sweaty bodies, and who knows what else over the next two years. 

Related - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Grants for Science Research