Microbiomes of the Built Environment: A Research Agenda for Indoor Microbiology, Human Health, and Buildings

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Preface: Ours is a microbial world. Although we cannot see microbes with the naked eye, we all live with microbial consortia. The microbes that are indigenous to our bodies are an essential component of our biology. Moreover, the indoor environments in which we live also harbor a complicated constellation of microbial types. The levels of microbial diversity, and the sheer numbers of organisms, are incongruous with our visual experience, but current microbiome research is changing the way we look not only at ourselves but also at the built environments we have created. DNA sequencing technologies provide a new view of the ubiquity and diversity of microbes in our lives. In looking back on centuries of human experience with buildings, we can see that people have developed many systems that support human comfort and convenience. The vision articulated in this report is that microbiome research can guide improvements to future buildings to enhance human healthfulness.

Do we know enough to rationally manage the microbial communities around us in built environments? The answer is “no.” However, there are provocative hints that in the future, coherent management of the indoor microbiome can help prevent the spread of disease and contribute to human longevity, health, and well-being.

To produce this Consensus Study Report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine brought together a group of experts to discuss the microbial communities inside our built environments and their potential effects on human health. The committee sought to understand indoor microbiome research, a discipline that is dedicated to studying buildings, the microbial communities found inside of buildings, and the complex interactions that impact human health and well-being. Of necessity, this report touches on a number of extremely dissimilar areas of research and therefore required a committee with diverse expertise. I am grateful to the informed and insightful group of professionals who so generously shared their time and knowledge during the process of writing this report. Their collective expertise was reflective of the range of subject matter covered during our deliberations.

The report also was informed by a number of excellent speakers and other participants who came to our open sessions. We thank all of these contributors for sharing their perspectives and research with us. Their contributions were invaluable in further developing our ideas and filling gaps in our expertise. In addition, we thank the report reviewers who provided insightful and instrumental feedback.

On behalf of the committee, I extend our greatest appreciation to the staff of the National Academies who worked with us throughout the process of creating this report. Without their time and guidance, this report would not have been possible. Finally, we thank the sponsors of the study for their financial support and for their astute vision of what this report could accomplish.

Joan Wennstrom Bennett, Chair

Committee on Microbiomes of the Built Environment:

From Research to Application