The human microbiome, a diverse collection of microorganisms living inside us and on our skin, has attracted considerable attention for its role in a broad range of human health issues. Now, researchers are discovering that the built environment also has a microbiome, which includes a community of potentially-pathogenic bacteria living inside water supply pipes.
A paper published March 11 in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology describes microbial communities found in shower hoses at a major U.S. hospital. The study documented bacteria — and related genes — using cutting-edge metagenomic techniques that allow the characterization of organisms that cannot be detected using traditional culture-based microbiology assays.
Researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Institute of Technology collaborated to study these biofilm communities, but can’t say yet if these bacteria pose a threat to hospital patients. But because some of the genes could indicate pathogenic characteristics — such as resistance to antibiotics — the researchers want to learn more about the potential health implications, and whether other buildings house similar biofilms. Antibiotic resistance is a public health emerging priority identified by the World Health Organization, which in 2015 released a global action plan to address the problem.