PR Meets Hard Science in Project Merccuri

Project MerccuriRussell Neches is a PhD student in the Microbiology Graduate Group at UC Davis who is involved with Project MERCCURI, a small experiment designed to spread public interest in a new field of science by gathering sample germs in sports stadiums and growing them on board the International Space Station (ISS). Russell Neches is pioneering the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Microbiology of the Built Environment Initiative.

Microbiology of the Built Environment Initiative

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic grant making institution known for funding major scientific undertakings and PR initiatives. They have a great interest in bridging the gap between the scientific community and the public. The Sloan Foundation noticed the building industry’s increased interest in the effects of molds and other microorganisms on people and built environment. They also noticed that microbiologists were performing similar research except in a laboratory environment. The foundation took note of the lack of communication between microbiologists and building engineers and proceeded to start the Microbiology of the Built Environment Initiative to help bridge this gap in communication and speed up research in the area. The first step of the initiative involved bringing microbiologists to one of the biggest conventions in building engineering, Indoor Air.

While Neches was initially apprehensive about attending the conference as a microbiologist, he was pleasantly surprised to find a massive conference of some 4,000 or 5,000 building scientists and engineers. The Sloan Foundation had the microbiologists go to random engineering talks and set up a special session for microbial ecology within the conference. Through the talks it was immediately apparent how microbiologists could bring in better methods of classifying molds and add their expertise to the growth of microbes in built environments. The result was the birth of a new field, focusing on microbiology in the built environment, and the Sloan Foundation eventually hopes that researchers will eventually be able to receive funding for this field from typical agencies like NIH, NSF and DOE. Part of the initiative’s $200 million was allocated to the Microbiology Graduate Group at UC Davis with a focus on public communication and outreach.  As a result Neches and his colleagues had to take a different approach with their funding money from the typical research that goes on in their lab. For the first year or so their lab focused on PR through social media sites like Twitter, which was rather unusual for their lab.

Citizen Science

One of the things the UC Davis lab is very interested in is citizen science, and how the public can become involved. Their laboratory organized a retreat about citizen science and invited a number of other people interested in the cause to talk about how citizens could become involved in a more constructive and intellectual way. One of the past problems with getting interest in citizen science in the past has been the rather limited scope through which citizen scientists can become involved intellectually. Usually citizen scientists are simply regarded as part of the drudge work of a project clicking things on a monitor.

It was at this retreat that they met Darlene Cavalier who is the head of SciStarter and a project called Science Cheerleaders.  Science Cheerleaders normally does talks, events and other PR to help young girls get interested in science. They had been interested in doing more than just promoting science. Neches went on to do a couple events with Science Cheerleader Wendy Brown, a biomedical engineer at UC Davis. When they went to a science high school fair to talk about space and microbiology, he realized how well Wendy in her Science Cheerleader’s outfit could talk and interact with the young girls. “When I looked at how 4th grade girls and like junior high school girls reacted to her and interacted with her, it was completely and 100% positive.” – Russel Neches.


The Science Cheerleaders approached their lab with the idea of doing a citizen science project on the microbiology of the built environment, and Darlene, using her contacts, was able to connect them with Space Florida, which was offering an opportunity to bring a payload through NanoRacks onboard the space station. After a rushed application to reach the deadline 3 days later, Project MERCCURI was born. Project MERCCURI can essentially be viewed as two experiments.

The first is purely PR fun. Darlene, being a formal professional cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, used her contacts with the NFL and NBA to allow the team to gain access to various sporting events and basically have the Science Cheerleaders talk about microbiology during the halftime shows as they swab for microbes from the courts, basketballs, blackboards and other noteworthy locations within the sports arenas. The microbes are collected, screened for pathogens and grown as representatives for each of the NBA teams. The NBA microbes are placed on a microplate reader with benchmark brackets as a sort of competition to see which microbes grow the fastest.

The second involves taking swabs to collect DNA for direct environmental sequencing. Contrary to genome sequencing which involves isolating a single organism and taking a pure sample of DNA, environmental shotgun sequencing involves extracting DNA from everything in an environmental sample. A single sample contains the DNA of thousands or millions of different organisms all mixed together. Advanced statistical and heuristic approaches are then used to figure out the composition of the sample. While this approach may not be the most accurate it preserves the diversity in the sample allowing the microbiologist the opportunity to discover new organisms which are generally missed in the traditional approach. Furthermore a related approach using RNA can even allow the microbiologist to not only tell which organisms are in there but what they are doing at the moment.

For the shotgun sequencing experiments swabs are also taken off of the shoes of and cellphones of people in the buildings. The cellphone microbes will show a signal for what the people brought in while the shoes will contain what was unique to that building offering another means of analyzing the data. In addition to the stadiums, swabs will also be taken from the space station itself to characterize what grows naturally in space. Finally swabs were also taken from homes to help contribute to the microbiology initiative. Since the NBA publicity has given them the opportunity to take a lot of samples into space, other labs have also been working on sequencing the microbes found in homes that were hit by major hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. The goal with these experiments is to see how buildings are affected by the microbes that appear in the wake of a major hurricane and figuring out how to determine whether structures should be salvaged or demolished for the safety of future residents.

International Scope – Working Towards a Better Tomorrow

It is suspected that some 60-80% of pollution exposure is from indoor air related issues, like the off-gases of construction materials, and the harmful metabolic byproducts of fungi and other microbes. Other things they hope to learn regard antibiotic resistance and antimicrobial resistance of these populations. One collaborator has done work on hospitals and found the air circulation system to be a major culprit of spreading MRSA around the building. The reality of the built environment microbiology is that it is a trillion dollar global problem. While the United States can afford to take care of MRSA patients, second world countries that have the technology to build modern hospitals but lack the financial resources to perform treatments, that cost $100,000 per patient, are forced to perform sub-par treatments because of this issue. Places like this are disastrous for antibiotic resistance because while they have the technology to diagnose the problem, neither they nor their patients can afford the full treatment of antibiotics. This can build up resistance in microbes, since less than the preferred amount of antibiotics can be administered. Even though the space portion of the project is essentially about sending Q-tips on a box into space, the larger goal of the project could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars.  Neches notes “We are at the point here right now, we know more about the microbial ecology of deep sea vents than the room you were sitting in right now…and that’s really scary.” Having microbial data on everything from balloon construction homes in Louisiana to the ISS will prove instrumental in helping Microbiology of the Built Environment Initiative find a solution to this problem.


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