NAU Bioinformatics Professor to Study Microbes on Office Surfaces
Most North Americans spend 95 percent of their time indoors where they
are exposed to bacteria and fungi. Yet
these microbial communities have largely gone unstudied. New technology in the last decade, such as
DNA sequencing, and the growing field of bioinformatics now make it possible to
investigate how these organisms survive on various building surfaces.
Greg Caporaso, Assistant Professor of Computer Sciences at Northern
Arizona University (NAU), is launching a year-long study to systematically
investigate microbial communities on three widely used building
materials—ceiling tiles, carpet tiles, and fiberboard surfaces. These materials
will be studied in nine buildings—three buildings each in Flagstaff, Arizona;
San Diego, California; and Toronto, Canada. Caporaso is curious how microbial communities in buildings affect the
health of people and how well the construction materials hold up to different
microbes in different climates over time. Four times a year, six weeks at a
time, researchers will collect detailed environmental metadata to detect
changes in the microbial communities.
The first collection period will establish sampling frequency.
Caporaso, who specializes in bioinformatics, has developed the protocols
to perform the testing, sequencing computations, and statistical analysis that
a project with a large number of samples, like this one, will require. He
anticipates that there will be approximately 10,000 data points. “Biology is
becoming a data-intensive field, and the tool kit of biology is changing
rapidly these days,” he says.
Results from the research could
- lead to predictive models based on the time
frame it takes for microbial communities to establish themselves and change in
the indoor environment
- lead to an early warning system to detect
communities associated with disease and material degradation and
- affect what building materials are used in
different climates to safeguard human health and minimize biodegradation.