Editorial Perspectives: using bacteria in rubber ducks to improve scientific literacy, advance citizen science, and expand fundamental science

Frederik Hammes *
Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Dübendorf, Switzerland. E-mail: frederik.hammes@eawag.ch

The microbiology of the built environment emerged in recent years as a fascinating research field, with numerous studies on everything from sippy cups to showers,1,2 keyboards, kitchen sponges and bath toys.3 However, what we learn from these studies could lead to challenges, as well as opportunities, that we, as scientists, haven't considered completely. It has become abundantly clear that materials used in our homes, and the manner in which they are used, create unique environments where complex microbial communities proliferate, in some cases also harboring opportunistic pathogens. Since the focal points of these studies are often particularly relatable to a broad public audience, they tend to attract a disproportionate amount of publicity and attention in both formal and social media. Recent examples are the widespread discussions on a very interesting showerhead study,2 covered with the occasional attention-grabbing headlines such as “That disgusting slime on your showerhead could be full of lung-disease germs”, or our paper on bath toys3 covered with dramatic headlines like “Your rubber ducky is a disgusting biohazard, loaded with potential pathogens” (both headlines from https://www.sciencealert.com/). And then we say there is no such thing as bad publicity! These two headlines alone – and they were by no means alone – would make any normal person abandon the long-held understanding that showers and baths are cornerstones of basic hygiene, consequently trading say a possible Pseudomonas eye infection for severe body odor problems and/or something nasty like seborrhoeic dermatitis or atopic dermatitis. Clearly balance, perspective and some common sense are needed.

So this inevitably raises questions on whether many of our studies in the built environment amount to unnecessary fearmongering (your baby's rubber duck is apparently a “disgusting biohazard”, after all). The answer is definitely not, and the reasons for this are fourfold.

∘ First, there are very real and relevant problems related to uncontrolled microbial growth in the built environment. For example, (i) Legionellosis cases caused by contaminated building plumbing biofilms are showing record high numbers worldwide; (ii) mycobacterial infections are increasingly recognized as related to plumbing systems;2 and (iii) at least one case of hospital infections was linked directly to Pseudomonas aeruginosa from rubber ducks.4 Importantly, these so-called opportunistic pathogens often infect the most vulnerable individuals among us.

∘ Second, a long history with basic hygiene has demonstrated that microbial growth is manageable, but that it can't be managed properly if it is not understood. Such management can for example be basic advice for consumers on product cleaning or use, but can also extend to improved material design and implementation, targeting for example manufacturers, architects, plumbers etc.

∘ Thirdly, microbial ecology is miles more interesting, exciting and valuable beyond just the detection of a few pathogens. Expanded knowledge on the microbial ecology of built environments is likely to provide us with novel insights into the potential benefits of exposure to benign household microbiomes, such as the long-term impacts on immune system development, and the contribution to, for example, the skin and gut microbiomes. Microbial ecology research in the built environment will also enable researchers to better understand microbial responses to specific (new) environments, such as microbial selection and adaptation to household disinfectants, growth on novel/smart materials, and growth in oligotrophic environments.

∘ Finally, the interest from citizens renders these studies excellent gateways to better science communication, at a time when this is most needed. Built environment projects provide the opportunity to get citizens directly involved in sampling,1–3 thus actively contributing to the research. It also provides a platform for engaging the broader public in scientific discussions (e.g., via social media). This can and should be used to rekindle excitement and interest in science, particularly with young people, while simultaneously increasing scientific literacy in general. My experience is that people are smart and really interested in science, we just need to tap better into that.

Studies of the built environment should accomplish the latter point, but sometimes don't. While accepting the media's need for viral news stories, there is an onus on us as scientists to improve communication and messaging. It requires for example careful interaction with your institute's communication department to craft the original press release correctly from the start. Formal media training also helps to ensure the right message is delivered in follow-up interviews. Moreover, what is critical is to communicate a balanced perspective, providing the context and bigger picture (i.e. research is never defined by just one study!). This is for example achieved by also using other science-communication forms, of which excellent examples are the “Microbiology of the built environment network” (https://www.microbe.net/) that maintains a comprehensive and insightful website, or popular science literature such as Robert Dunn's latest book “Never home alone”.5 Finally, it calls for unrestricted, open source publications so that the public can access and read the original studies themselves, supported with a writing style that embraces rather than disenfranchises non-scientific readers.

As scientists, it is essential that we progress from characterization studies that sometimes unwittingly project an unnecessary negative microbial message, to research that focuses on constructive microbial resource management of the microbes sharing our homes, and how to harness the benefits from these organisms. Maybe a future of rubber ducks made from smart materials that promote the growth of immune-system supporting bacteria? I am looking forward to that indeed.

Notes and references

  1. C. R. Proctor, et al., Biofilms in shower hoses, Water Res., 2018, 131, 274–286 CrossRef CAS PubMed.
  2. M. J. Gebert, et al., Ecological analyses of mycobacteria in showerhead biofilms and their relevance to human health, mBio, 2018, 9, e01614-18,  DOI:10.1128/mBio.01614-18.
  3. L. Neu, et al., Ugly ducklings—the dark side of plastic materials in contact with potable water, NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes, 2018, 4, 7 CrossRef PubMed.
  4. J. Buttery, et al., Multiresistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa outbreak in a pediatric oncology ward related to bath toys, Pediatr. Infect. Dis. J., 1998, 17, 509–513 CrossRef CAS PubMed.
  5. R. R. Dunn, Never Home Alone: from microbes to millipedes, camel crickets, and honeybees, the natural history of where we live, Basic Books, 2018 Search PubMed.

This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2019