The bathroom stool wobbled under my feet as I reached toward the top of my front door and opened the clear plastic tube from Rob Dunn’s lab. I pulled out a pair of long cotton-tipped sticks, and carefully scrubbed the top of the doorframe with them, turning them around and around until they were well coated with dust and crud. Mission completed, I popped the dirty sticks back into their sterile tube, found the matching “outside” tube, and headed out into the snow to sample the other side of the door.
At this point, the only thing my inside and outside samples tell me is that my house would never pass a white-glove test. (Have I ever dusted the top of the door?) But once they’re back at the Dunn lab at NC State University, ten years of door crud will be transformed into tiny samples of rural Massachussetts microbial life. The project, “Wild Life of Our Homes” is very much like the lab’s ongoing “Belly Button Biodiversity” project – by sampling a part of the house that rarely gets cleaned, the research team think they’ll get a snapshot of the bacteria and fungus that make up an invisible part of our environment. They’ll use DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify the species of microbe that were floating around my house, and compare my household bacteria with the microbial biota of other homes to find whether their diversity falls into any sort of pattern – whether regional (my house might have more cold-tolerant bacteria than my sister’s house in North Carolina) or by lifestyle (my dog and cat may encourage a different set of microbes than my neighbor’s guinea pigs). Ultimately, the lab wants to build an atlas of household microbes, and find out whether the tiniest inhabitants of a house are affected by the way people live.
If you want to participate and are willing to wait a few months for the lab to work through their current backlog of samples, you can sign up for a sampling kit on the project website. You’ll get a set of cotton swabs to swipe up dust around your house, and a questionnaire that asks (among other things) about the macroscopic animals that live in and around your house (in my case, kids, pets, and chickens), the cleaning products you like to use, and whether any of your housemates have allergies.