Duke-led Center Seeks to Examine and Engineer the Microbial Communities of Indoor Spaces

PreMiEr logo

A multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Duke University will undertake an ambitious endeavor to understand and improve the microbial communities that inhabit the structures in which we live, work and play — what scientists call the “built environment.”

The Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering, or PreMiEr, aims to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches that promote building designs for preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses while encouraging beneficial microorganisms.

PreMiEr is funded by a five-year, $26 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), renewable for a second five-year, $26 million term. The Duke center is one of four new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) announced by the agency last week.

PreMiEr researchers at Duke

The Gunsch lab has a long history of growing and studying microbial
communities in Petri dishes with the goal of engineering new behaviors.
-- Duke photos


Joining Duke in the effort are researchers from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and North Carolina State University.

“This center touches on the struggles any parent or caregiver undergoes because they want to make the best decisions about what their loved ones are exposed to,” said Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke and the director of PreMiEr.

“But that’s a really difficult thing to do because we don’t yet know what a healthy microbiome might look like in the places we spend most of our time,” Gunsch said. “Our goal is to start to fill those data gaps and lay the foundation for researchers to dig into these important questions.”

Human beings spend more than 90% of their time within built environments — the homes, offices, cars, hospitals, stores and other manmade enclosures that underpin modern society. Yet very little is known about the ever-present but largely invisible populations of microorganisms (built environment microbiomes) that grow and live in these spaces.

PreMiEr researchers at Duke
Duke graduate students Joshua Crittenden (left) and Daniel Rodriguez (right) discuss their microbiome engineering research
with their advisor, Claudia Gunsch. The group's expertise in engineering microbes to remediate polluted environments
will now be focused on using the microbiomes of indoor spaces to improve human health.

That’s a big blind spot, given that there are roughly just as many bacterial cells as there are human cells within a human body, and there are bound to be interactions between those microbes and those in the built environment. Diseases such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, irritable bowel disease and many others have already been linked to changes within the human microbiome. Understanding which microbes are thriving in the spaces we spend most of our time and how they affect us and our own microbiomes is the first step toward teasing out their potential health effects, both positive and negative.

“On the heels of a global pandemic costing over five million lives globally, PreMiEr outlines a timely and audacious vision for microbiome engineering in the built environment that could help us avoid such calamities while leading to tremendous impact on our quality of life,” said Jerome Lynch, Vinik Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

“We want to be able to go into hospital rooms or other closed environments and devise treatment strategies for unwanted microbes,” Gunsch added. “That’s something that is achievable in the short term. For the long term, we want to develop the tools, procedures and knowledge base needed to identify and define what a healthy microbiome looks like and devise approaches for promoting those healthy microbiomes across a wide range of built environments.”

PreMiEr researchers at Duke
Research at the Duke Hospital Testbed will help develop diagnostic tools and test microbiome engineering
approaches to prevent the colonization of infectious agents while promoting the proliferation of
beneficial microorganisms in built environments.

PreMiEr will focus its efforts through an inclusive and collaborative lens to ensure that any of the questions asked or solutions pursued incorporate a wide range of cultural and societal viewpoints. This is reflected in the structure of the research center, which includes a core area for investigating the societal and ethical implications of microbiome engineering to innovate responsibly.

Of the more than 40 researchers, almost half are women and nearly 20% belong to historically marginalized groups in STEM. Through its partnership with NC A&T, the nation’s largest historically black college and university, and other institutions sharing the goal of broadening participation in STEM, the center will contribute to the development of a diverse workforce capable of tackling these critical challenges into the future.

“Duke is thrilled to lead this effort and expand upon our deep collaborations with academic, industry, and community partners, interdisciplinary research culture, innovative spirit, and commitment to broadening participation in STEM,” said Duke President Vincent Price, Ph.D.

Joining Gunsch on the PreMiEr leadership team are four distinguished faculty from neighboring North Carolina institutions:

  • Jill Stewart, Ph.D., the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health
  • Joseph Graves, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at NC A&T
  • Jennifer Kuzma, Ph.D., the Goodnight-NCGSK Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NC State
  • Anthony Fodor, Ph.D., professor of bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte.

The NSF ERC program supports convergent research that will lead to strong societal impact. Each ERC has interacting foundational components that go beyond the research project, including engineering workforce development at all participant stages, fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion where all participants gain mutual benefit, and creating value within an innovation ecosystem that will outlast the lifetime of the ERC. The program was created in 1984 to bring technology-based industry and universities together in an effort to strengthen the competitive position of American industry in the global marketplace.

“For decades, NSF Engineering Research Centers have transformed technologies and fostered innovations in the United States through bold research, collaborative partnerships, and a deep commitment to inclusion and broadening participation," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., director of NSF. “The new NSF centers will continue the legacy of impacts that improve lives across the Nation.”

Ken Kingery, Duke News writer
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