Bacteria Before and After: Mapping the Microbiome of a New Hospital

Jack Gilbert giving a presentation at the Center for Care and Discovery Symposium on November 10

In February we’ll open the doors of the Center for Care and Discovery to hundreds of patients, medical staff and visitors. But they won’t be the first residents of our new hospital: The building will already be colonized by millions of bacteria, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jack Gilbert, PhD, assistant professor of Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago and environmental microbiologist at Argonne National Laboratory, is working on the Hospital Microbiome Project to catalog the bacterial species growing in the hospital before and after it opens. The goal is to understand how humans interact with the microbial community that develops in a hospital, so doctors can improve patient care and prevent hospital-acquired infections. “We’re going to determine how good and bad bacteria co-exist in a hospital, and how the good can keep out the bad,” Gilbert said in an article published by Arete, a University research accelerator.

Collecting samples from one of the new ORs (photo via Arete)

In June, Gilbert and his team collected samples from 32 locations in the hospital construction site, including floors, countertops, water fountains, and the team’s shoes before and after the tour. They extracted DNA from these samples and sequenced them at Argonne to determine what species were present. Over the next two years they’ll collect and sequence another 12,000 samples from the building, patients and staff to see how people going about the business of a modern hospital affect this environment, and vice versa. Gilbert and his colleagues will also be collecting samples from a US Army hospital in Germany for similar study.

At a recent symposium at the Center for Care and Discovery, Gilbert gave a presentation of his work, and said, “Cataloguing what’s out there is a fundamentally important thing to do.” Airing the dirty laundry (and floors and faucets and fixtures) of a hospital might be uncomfortable, but nearly 100,000 people die from hospital-acquired infections in the US each year. Cataloguing what’s in our health care facilities so we can prevent these deaths is fundamentally important too.

About Matt Wood (483 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer for the University of Chicago Medicine and editor of the Science Life blog.
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