Charlotte researchers part of NSF-supported center investigating ‘healthier’ buildings

Could the design of a hospital or a school affect the germs that can spread within it? UNC Charlotte bioinformatics professor Anthony Fodor is part of a team seeking to find out. He is among the leaders of an interdisciplinary group of researchers undertaking an effort to better understand and improve the microbial communities of where people live, work and play — what scientists call the “built environment.”

Fodor is one of the co-principal investigators for the Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering, or PreMiEr. Duke University is the lead institution for the center, which aims to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches that promote building designs for preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses while encouraging beneficial microorganisms.

The center is funded through a five-year, $26 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center (ERC) program; it can be renewed for a second five-year, $26 million term. The ERC program supports research, education and technology translation at the country’s leading universities with a focus on impactful outcomes for society, including training and workforce development.

Fodor will use a portion of the funds to establish a data center at Charlotte that will serve as the hub for bioinformatics analyses occurring at PreMiEr partner institutions as they increase the body of knowledge around the ever-present but little-known-about, largely invisible populations of microorganisms (built environment microbiomes) that grow and live in the spaces where human beings spend more than 90% of their time. These include the homes, offices, cars, hospitals, stores and other enclosures that underpin modern society.

“Microbes have a significant impact on much of what happens in society,” said Fodor. “The current COVID pandemic is recent evidence of negative effects. Through PreMiEr, researchers will endeavor to better understand and control how humans interact with microbes in the built environment. This could allow us to promote beneficial, ‘healthy’ microbes that will help prevent the spread of infectious, disease-causing microbes.”

A common challenge in bioinformatics research is reproducing identical results from other researchers. Through his lab at Charlotte, Fodor uses virtual machines to create computing pipelines, a set of data-processing elements connected in series. His cutting-edge technique extracts analyses from underlying computer hardware, guaranteeing researchers can perform identical analyses even using different computers or software from the original.

In addition to Fodor, other Charlotte researchers involved with PreMiEr include Sandra Clinton, a research assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences; Cynthia Gibas, professor and interim chair of the Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics; and Jacelyn Rice-Boayue, an assistant professor in The William States Lee College of Engineering.

Duke University’s Claudia Gunsch, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is director of PreMiEr. Other research leads are Joseph Graves Jr., professor of biological sciences at N.C. A&T; Jill Stewart, the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health; UNC Charlotte’s Anthony Fodor; and Jennifer Kuzma, the Goodnight-NCGSK Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at N.C. State University.

Fodor has participated in numerous studies that have linked the state of the human microbial community to health and disease and was a member of the data analysis team for the Human Microbiome and the Microbiome Quality Control projects. His expertise in bioinformatics data analyses and modeling will be critical given the time-consuming analyses involved in the study of microbial communities.

“Our charge is not only to build a highly efficient data center, but one that delivers reproducible results, which will be crucial to the success of PreMiEr,” Fodor said.

Gunsch, from Duke University, noted that as humans, “We struggle with deciding what our loved ones are exposed to because we don’t yet know what a healthy microbiome might look like in the places where we spend most of our time. Our goal is to start to fill those data gaps and lay the foundation for researchers to dig into these important questions.”

Fodor, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics from the University of Washington, points to hospitals as an important example. “How can we prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes within this built environment? We have a lot of control over how hospitals are constructed and maintained. That makes them an ideal environment to develop and test the ideas of the center.”

For more information, read Duke University’s release about PreMiEr.