Architectural design drives the biogeography of indoor bacterial communities

PLoS One. 2014 Jan 29;9(1):e87093. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0087093. eCollection 2014.


Background: Architectural design has the potential to influence the microbiology of the built environment, with implications for human health and well-being, but the impact of design on the microbial biogeography of buildings remains poorly understood. In this study we combined microbiological data with information on the function, form, and organization of spaces from a classroom and office building to understand how design choices influence the biogeography of the built environment microbiome.

Results: Sequencing of the bacterial 16S gene from dust samples revealed that indoor bacterial communities were extremely diverse, containing more than 32,750 OTUs (operational taxonomic units, 97% sequence similarity cutoff), but most communities were dominated by Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, and Deinococci. Architectural design characteristics related to space type, building arrangement, human use and movement, and ventilation source had a large influence on the structure of bacterial communities. Restrooms contained bacterial communities that were highly distinct from all other rooms, and spaces with high human occupant diversity and a high degree of connectedness to other spaces via ventilation or human movement contained a distinct set of bacterial taxa when compared to spaces with low occupant diversity and low connectedness. Within offices, the source of ventilation air had the greatest effect on bacterial community structure.

Conclusions: Our study indicates that humans have a guiding impact on the microbial biodiversity in buildings, both indirectly through the effects of architectural design on microbial community structure, and more directly through the effects of human occupancy and use patterns on the microbes found in different spaces and space types. The impact of design decisions in structuring the indoor microbiome offers the possibility to use ecological knowledge to shape our buildings in a way that will select for an indoor microbiome that promotes our health and well-being.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Deinococcus / genetics
  • Dust
  • Environment Design
  • Environmental Microbiology*
  • Microbiota / genetics*
  • Molecular Typing
  • Phylogeny
  • Proteobacteria / genetics
  • RNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Universities
  • Ventilation


  • Dust
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S

Grant support

This research was funded by a grant to the Biology and the Built Environment Center from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Microbiology for the Built Environment Program ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.