In January 2013, as the University of Chicago prepared to unveil its newest hospital building, one last task remained: swabbing the nooks and crannies of the building, from floor to furniture to water faucets.
The people doing the swabbing were researchers collecting samples of microorganisms—the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are essentially everywhere, including within hospital walls. As part of an initiative called the Hospital Microbiome Project, these researchers returned to the hospital throughout the year to collect nearly 12,400 samples, with the goal of mapping out the mix of microbes that populate a health-care environment.
Just as the human gut has a microbiome, so too does a hospital, the team posited. They’re among a growing group of researchers who believe that understanding hospitals’ microscopic ecological community could be key to preventing people from getting sicker in hospitals when they should be recovering. Our gut microbiome has been linked to effects ranging from Parkinson’s disease to the body’s immune response; some scientists believe a hospital’s microbiome could play a role in health, too.
It’s no secret that health-care-related infections have major health and economic costs. Every year, an estimated 440,000 infections occur in U.S. hospitals, costing nearly $10 billion. And despite efforts at keeping the building and workers’ hands and tools clean, these illnesses persist. “There are many unexplained diseases that occur in hospitals—sepsis, infections—and although we can identify a bacterium most associated with those events, we still fail to understand the specifics of the transfer of organisms in the hospital,” says Jack Gilbert, a leader of the Hospital Microbiome Project and a microbial ecologist at Argonne National Laboratory.