What kind of organisms grow in your couch? Are they the same species as those living on someone's door frame couple hundred miles away? A new citizen science project, The Wild Life of Your Home, is being funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University.
They need you to collect samples from your home, in order to test the Hygiene Hypothesis and get a better glimpse of what small organisms live in urban versus rural locales.
Why test the microbes that grow in your home?
As urban areas become more densely populated, our contact with nature and the diversity of microbes present in our lives logically decreases. Our landscape is constantly changing — where mice and bees once lived, now stands your apartment complex. Have the bacteria, fungi, and other lower organisms that live their changed as well?
The researchers involved in The Wild Life of Your Home want you to swab your door frame, couch, refrigerator and yourself, and mail the result to their lab so they can learn more about what is growing on the surface and search for clues about what lived there before. Dr. Rob Dunn, head of the project, says:
We are getting short bits of DNA from each of ten samples in houses – (the) door sill-outside, door sill-inside, door knob, toilet, cutting board, television, bedroom pillow, human palm, refrigerator, etc. We will then be using other techniques to get short reads (a few hundred or so base pairs) of the DNA of pollen, fungi and maybe, just maybe, the DNA in the insect poop that floats around everywhere.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
The goal of the project is to test the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that the microbes urban dwellers come in contact each day are vastly different and are less diverse than those would come in contact while living in a rural environment. If you live in a city like I do, you can spend a weekend without leaving your doorstep.
Looking at ants in NYC and belly button lint
The research group's previous work has looked at the variation in belly button floraamongst science writers along with what types of ants are prevalent in urban areas. Belly buttons were chosen as a location to study on humans, as it's a pretty safe, secure, and warm place for microbes to grow. The ant sampling project, like the The Wild Life of Your Home project, compared the diversity between urban and rural areas, but did so by observing the ants that live between the medians along Broadway and Park Avenue in Manhattan.
Send in your samples for analysis
The researchers have limited funding; funding that initially paid for five urban samples and five rural samples from each of the 50 U.S. states. Dr. Dunn notes that there are spaces in every state available, with the hope of receiving enough funding to expand to 10,000 plus samples. Dunn's group also has a desire to expanding internationally if the study garners enough interest. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty (well, not any dirtier than they already are, it is your home after all) and collecting some samples, sign up here to receive a sample collection kit by mail.
The variation of wildlife in urban hasn't been extensively studied — here's your chance to make a great contribution. The study could also have far reaching medical implications, and might let us know if our "clean" life is a little too clean when compared to that of our ancestors.
Images courtesy of Dr. Rob Dunn's lab at North Carolina State University. Sources linked within the article.