Homes are surprisingly complex. You’d think that they wouldn’t be since, after all, outside is where all the dirt, plants, and animals are. We (humans) expend a lot of effort to make sure that inside is a nice place to be—not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dirty. Despite these efforts, there’s a large and largely unseen ecosystem in our houses. Life finds a way.
I’ve just spent the last three days participating in a National Evolutionary Synthesis Center catalysis meeting focused on understanding the complexity of the indoor environment. This was, by design, a diverse group of academics: evolutionary biologists, ecologists, entomologists, microbial biologists, building engineers, architects, anthropologists, sociologists, and a visual artist. Admittedly, there was a steep bias towards biology–and evolutionary biology in particular–but that’s to be expected for a workshop called Evolution of the Indoor Biome. We spent three intense days discussing the biology of the built environment, and the indoor environment in particular.
My take-away from the meeting is that we have much to learn about how the organisms in the home experience their environment. We need to get down to their level and understand the indoor environment as: a place that is very different from what's outside the walls, a place that presents many barriers and structural complexity, and a place with many localized niche environments in close proximity to each other. This last can be dramatically represented by the contrast between the heat and darkness found behind a refrigerator and, not two feet away, the damp coldness of the refrigerator shelf (thanks to Craig McClain for this example). These features of the indoor biome are not well characterized or quantified.
Looking forward, I'll focus my indoor biome efforts on quantification of the indoor environment and testing classic biogeographic models in the context of the built environment, thinking of buildings as islands. First up will be getting familiar with the Arthropods of Our Homes project run in part by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. More about this collaboration as it develops but I'm excited to release the phylogenetic and population modeling hounds on their indoor biodiversity data. Long term, as a product of this workshop, I now have some ideas for new experiments and studies that span the evolution gamut from coevolution, population genomics, and experimental manipulation of indoor organisms to measure selection, but these are ideas for future discussions.
For now, I'll close by thanking the organizers & other participants of the workshop, NESCent for providing the opportunity, and the Sloan Foundation for funding the workshop. Oh, and Sam, our ever reliable shuttle driver who always got us there on time and was kind enough to let me carry a dozen Monuts Donuts on the shuttle van even though he probably wasn't supposed to. Thanks everybody.