Wildlife of Our Homes: Q & A with Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University. His lab group – in collaboration with Noah Fierer’s microbial ecology group at the University of Colorado–Boulder – have launched the Wild Life of Our Homes project, a continental-scale citizen science project that aims to build an atlas of house-associated microbial diversity. Dunn and his team see the homes of North America as the next ecological frontier. They aspire to understand how the physical characteristics of a home, its inhabitants, and the landscape in which it is situated influence the microbial communities that live there. Moreover, they will investigate the reverse: how the presence or absence of home microbes may influence our own health and well-being.
How did you get interested in the microbes of homes?
I guess this story has multiple answers. My first interest was in the context of writing. I was writing The Wild Life of Our Bodies and became really interested in what we do and don’t know about the species we interact with every day. I was struck by how little was known about the species in our homes. No one has ever exhaustively surveyed the species of homes. No one even has a good list of the animals present, much less the smaller beasts. This fascinated me. What fascinated me even more than writing about this problem was that I could do something about it and so we began the Wild Life of Our Homes and other related projects in which we work with the public to study one of the least known but most important habitats on Earth, your home.
What is your big vision for Wild Life of Our Homes?
It depends on the day I guess, but when I am feeling ambitious I think we might be able to pull off the most complete survey of the insides of our homes ever achieved and do it in such a way to understand what determines the species that live with us. The big, big, vision is then to move from understanding who is present and why to being able to garden species that benefit us, whether they are animals, plants, fungi or bacteria. We are good at killing species we think are bad, far less effective at gardening species that benefit us (with the exception of our foods).
What special contribution do you think PGP volunteers could make to the Wild Life of Our Homes project?
Oh, well this is exciting. One of the really interesting things to think about in the context of microbes in homes is the interaction between our bodies and their cells. We know that many (but not the majority) of the species living in our homes depend on our bodies and their skin and other bits for food. And so presumably the species that live on you are influencing the species we find in homes. But the really interesting question is whether your genes are actually influencing the species on you and the species floating around you—on your pillow, on your cutting board, anywhere else. Is the composition of your house influenced by the extended influence of your genes? That seems very conceivable but is hard to test. With PGP data we will be able to perform the test. We can also consider the reverse. To what extent do the microbes in your house influence your health and well-being and how much is that effect contingent on your genes. The rich data provided by PGP volunteers will really be wonderful in the ways that it will allow us to think of human and home as part of a continuous ecosystem.
Why recruit citizen volunteers to accomplish your research goals?
It is literally the only way we can see what is going on. I used to study rain forests. Sometimes it was hard to get to a field site. There were narrow trails, dangerous snakes, malaria parasites, and sketchy buses, but you could get there. When it comes to studying bedrooms on the other hand, access is more difficult. More to the point, even if we could go into 1000 bedrooms, we can go once. The folks we work with can study their homes every day. That, to us, is the great thing, to be able to form a network of public scientists each of whose houses becomes a kind of long-term ecological research site.
I understand you’re in the process of analyzing data from a pilot study of the microbes living on surfaces in 40 homes in North Carolina. What have you learned so far? Have there been any surprises?
Microbiologically, we can’t tell toilet seats and pillowcases apart. I don’t know how that changes my life, but it is true. Also, there are strong and discrete habitats within the home microbiologically speaking, but the big surprise is that there are big differences among houses (just as we have seen in another study, among belly buttons). The fun question, the one we are enlisting PGP participants to help us with, is explaining what accounts for those differences. Outdoor climate? Backyard biodiversity? Your genes? Your dog? Your carpet? The type of house you live in? Any and all of these things might matter, but our data so far suggest that most of them don’t. Our preliminary data do suggest that some aspects of the ecology of our homes may be simpler than we anticipated, but we need to see more houses. We need to test our anecdotes against what we see across North America from sea to shining sea, or should that be from toilet seat to shining toilet seat?
Important Note for PGP participants
PGP volunteers interested in participating in the Wild Life of Our Homes project should log into their PGP account and visit the third party page to register. We strongly encourage PGP volunteers to sign-up for the project in this way so that you may easily link your home microbiome data to your public PGP profile once the data is available.