Fighting the ‘ick factor: Helping people see the pros and cons of bacteria

Author: Tom Springer

Fighting the ‘ick factor: Helping people see the pros and cons of bacteria

Kyle Bibby is an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences and an affiliated faculty member of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI)He joined the University in 2017, drawn here by "the opportunity to build a world-class research program in a setting that values holistic student growth and training.” His research focuses on microbiology as it relates to water quality and public health protection. This includes the detection and fate of human pathogenic viruses in the environment, as well as the microbiome of the built and environment, and the microbial ecology of environments effected by fossil fuels -- such as the water produced from hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

In this Q&A with ND-ECI, Bibby discusses the emergent role and perception of his microbiome research:

Q: In the past decade, we’ve seen large efforts to chart the open space microbiome in places such as university classrooms, public restrooms and apartments. What are some pros and cons of this groundbreaking research?

A: A major benefit of this type of work is public awareness of microbiology. I believe that the general public today is more aware today of microbiology than a decade ago, and that is largely due to the emergence of the ‘microbiome’ as a focus of research. The drawback is the microbiology ‘ick factor. People tend to associate bacteria with disease, and these studies have the potential to play into people’s latent assumptions about bacteria being bad. It is important to remember that the majority of microorganisms are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ from our point view, and that some microorganisms are essential for our health!

Q: When lay people hear that their favorite beach or restaurant has been closed due to the presence of E. coli bacteria, they usually think of E. coli as the culprit. Can you explain why that’s not the case?

A: E. coli may be the culprit some of the time, but in many applications we use it as an ‘indicator’ to suggest contamination. While a small number of E. coli can make us sick, most E. coli are ‘commensal’ - a natural part of our digestive tract. My research groups works on better indicators to suggest contamination. For example, E. coli is not a good indicator of viruses - that’s something we’re working to fix.

Q: You mentioned in your November ND-ECI seminar that Americans “live a privileged life in terms of water quality.”  How has that assumption effected your research?

A: While the United States still faces critical microbiological water quality challenges (e.g. Legionnaire’s disease, ensuring safe wastewater reuse, developing better indicators for viruses in water) we are very fortunate. The vast majority of the U.S. population has access to safe drinking water and sanitation. That isn’t the case everywhere. The World Health Organization recently reported that 6 in 10 people worldwide lacked access to safely managed sanitation. This is an important global area that I hope to contribute to with my research at Notre Dame.

Q: What type of new research opportunities to you see yourself pursuing in the near and long-term future?  

A: My group will continue to work on our core area of water microbiology while expanding into sanitation issues in the developing world. We’re always looking for interested collaborators and motivated students!