Recent Biology graduate Willem Griffiths is dedicating his summer to river rafting and building material testing. For his senior thesis work last year, Willem began studying how the chemical structures of materials, such as concrete and plaster, affect microbial growth on surfaces.

Microbes that are found indoors come from a variety of different sources, including outdoor air and soil that has been tracked indoors, aerosolization from indoor water sources, and particularly from human occupants of the building. These human microbial clouds tend to overwhelm other microbial growth, causing testing inaccuracies. To isolate the effects of building materials on microbial growth from the effects of other microbial sources, and to understand how microbial communities on surfaces would change over time, Willem got creative. To counter this problem and still get realistic results, Willem and Dr. Roo Vandegrift, lead PI on this project, built sealed boxes with controlled ventilation, creating a sterile material testing place.

After constructing small walls of different building materials, Willem placed the materials in a non-sterile office environment for a short period of time to become coated with a typical indoor microbial signature, and then moved these materials to the sterile lab environment. In the lab, he’s looking at microbial growth, but also keeping tabs on microbial death. Willem is using information about microbial death to determine the rate of breakdown of different building materials, and to understand how microbes might kill each other, perhaps a tool for eliminating harmful bacteria.

Willem isn’t just observing what microbes are growing, he’s also working with collaborators at Portland State University in Dr. Elliott Gall’s lab to genetically sequence them and study the chemicals that they are releasing. In the future, the genetic sequencing could be incredibly useful for identifying the specific properties and effects of a single microbial population, having applications for both building construction and long-term human health, including preventing the transmission of harmful microbes and hindering building decay. He is excited to be part of an interdisciplinary organization that is “tackling the big picture questions” about human health and addressing problems from a multitude of angles. As he cheerfully takes his lunch break to speak with me, he just as excitedly gets back to the lab. Willem’s ongoing microbial and material research has a variety of applications for the science, health, and design communities, and we are all looking forward to seeing the results!

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