NAU Bioinformatics Professor to Study Microbes on Office Surfaces

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Dr. Greg Caporaso is curious how microbial communities establish themselves in buildings across different climates.

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.
--Sylvia Somerville