Resume Reading — Meet the Neighbors You’ll Never See


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Meet the Neighbors You’ll Never See

Bacteria take a starring role in six vignettes of city life.

Last week, microbiologists took to Twitter to find a catchy name for the millions of microbes in our residences, offices, and schools.…By Jessica Green & Amy Maxmen

Last week, microbiologists took to Twitter to find a catchy name for the millions of microbes in our residences, offices, and schools. Microbes within us—our microbiomes—have gotten years of play. But considerably less is said of the microbes within a built environment, the places where we spend our time. (Candidates for the monikers include #MicrobiHome, #MicroMetropolis, and #TinyNeighbors.)

People who live in cities might care most about the microbial content of buildings. Every tenant in an apartment complex and every employee at a company ushers in their own set of bugs according to their lifestyle, diet, and the contents of their abodes. Therefore, their choices affect the microbes around you, too.

Click on the windows in the following interactive graphic to reveal how microbes swirl around the tenants sharing an apartment building. Dramas on each floor are inspired by research, with scientific references listed below.

It’s hard to say which microbes are helping or hurting our health because the science of the “built microbiome” is just beginning. But already, microbiologists know not all microbes are bad. For instance, dog owners’ homes contain dust with a high diversity of bacteria, and studies suggest that exposure to this dust may increase the proportion of bacteria like Lactobacillus johnsonii in dog owners’ guts and help protect them against allergies. In the future, we might consider microbes when we make decisions about our lifestyle, our décor, and the pets we possess. If we get lucky, our neighbors will make bio-informed decisions too.   

Jessica Green is a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Steven Green is a graphic artist in Eugene. They are the authors of a graphic novel on microbes, The Tiny Shiny.


Adams, R. I., Miletto, M., Taylor, J. W., & Bruns, T. D. The Diversity and Distribution of Fungi on Residential Surfaces. PLoS ONE 8(11) (2013). Retrieved from e78866. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078866. 

Fujimura, K. E., et al. House Dust Exposure Mediates Gut Microbiome Lactobacillus Enrichment and Airway Immune Defense against Allergens and Virus Infection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013). Retrieved from doi:10.1073/pnas.1310750111.

Holinger, E. P., Ross, K. A., Robertson, C. E., Stevens, M. J., Harris, J. K., & Pace, N. R. Molecular Analysis of Point-of-Use Municipal Drinking Water Microbiology. Water Research 49, 225–235 (2014).

Kembel, S. W., et al. Architectural Design Influences the Diversity and Structure of the Built Environment Microbiome. The ISME Journal 6, 1469–1479 (2012).

Song, S. J., et al. Cohabiting Family Members Share Microbiota with One Another and with Their Dogs. eLife 2 (2013).

Meadow, J.F., Bateman, A.C., Herkert, K.M., O’Connor, T.L., & Green, J.L. Significant changes in the skin microbiome mediated by the sport of roller derby. Peer J. 1:e53 (2013).

Qian, J., Hospodsky, D., Yamamoto, N., Nazaroff, W. W., & Peccia, J. Size-Resolved Emission Rates of Airborne Bacteria and Fungi in an Occupied Classroom. Indoor Air 22 (4), 339–351 (2012).

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