Research Project Full Title: Collaborative Research: Characterization of the Microbiome Aerosolized in Shower Units
Principal Investigator(s): Kerry Kinney
Researchers: Maria King (Texas A&M), Alexandra Caya, Chloe Woolridge, Juan P. Maestre, Michal Ziv-El, Yassin Hassan
Sponsor(s): National Science Foundation
A wide variety of microorganisms have been detected in household tap water and the potential exists for these microbes to be released into the air during showering activities. While bacterial levels in drinking water systems are routinely monitored, the fungi present in these systems are not. Nevertheless, a wide range of fungi are present in the tap water reaching homeowners. Aerosolization of fungi from contaminated water during showering has been implicated as one source of fungal infections in immune-compromised individuals. More broadly, mold exposure in homes is associated with asthma exacerbation and allergies yet our daily exposure to fungal aerosols during showering remains unstudied. The overall objective of the project is to identify the fungi present in residential shower units to investigate the hypothesis that showering releases fungal bioaerosols and to identify the presence of potential human allergens and pathogens. The study will utilize state-of-the-art wetted wall cyclone (WWC) bioaerosol sampling and sequencing methods to identify the fungi released from residential shower units on two different municipal water supplies over two seasons (summer and winter). Potential sources of the fungi detected in the shower air will be investigated by collecting additional samples from the showerhead as well as the shower water. Finally, several factors potentially affecting fungal release into the air (e.g., water temperature and flow rate, shower head design, cleaning) will be investigated systematically in an experimental shower unit to allow manipulation of the key variables and to conduct longer term sampling.
The potential risk associated with human exposure to fungi during showering is not well understood even though it is known that fungi are present in tap water reaching households in the United States and elsewhere. Exposure to fungi has the potential to cause infections for immune-compromised individuals and to exacerbate asthma and allergy symptoms in sensitive individuals. This study will characterize and quantify the fungi released into the air during showering and lay the foundation for assessing the associated human health risks. The project will include a number of outreach activities to increase societal awareness of bioaerosols and their environmental impacts. These activities will include hosting seminars and open lab access to high school students, teachers and the general public as well as water system and medical representatives. The results of the research will be disseminated to the immune-compromised community since they are the segment of the population at greatest risk. In addition, the multidisciplinary nature of this work will be leveraged to provide new research experiences that expose both graduate and undergraduate students to the field of bioaerosols via the Graduates Linked to Undergraduate Engineers (GLUE) mentoring program at UT and the BIOTECH 685 graduate course at TAMU.