To UO landscape architecture student Gwynne Mhuireach, the seemingly clear air in Eugene is vibrantly alive. “There are all sizes of particles floating around,” the doctoral student says. “The heavier ones tend to stay more locally dispersed, and the lighter ones tend to be more long distance — there are some particles we’ve been getting from Japan.”
Thanks to an $84,000 fellowship grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and UO’s Biology and Built Environment Center, Mhuireach will be able to get to know Eugene’s diverse microbe population. Soon she will begin in-depth research in Eugene and Springfield into the influence of vegetation, and the microbial diversity it brings, on human health and happiness.
As Oregon cities become more densely developed within our urban growth boundaries, Mhuireach says, it is important to research the ways in which we are affected by our green spaces and vegetation. One way plants affect us is through the microbes that coexist with them. Her research has shown that around 80,000 airborne microbial species will settle onto an exposed Petri dish over the course of eight hours.
“If we knew whether there was a connection with the microbes, and if we also knew there was a connection with health, it might give us kind of a mechanistic idea of how much vegetation [we need in our cities],” Mhuireach says. “Eventually we could quantify how much vegetation and if we needed particular species to optimize the most [health] benefits.”
Mhuireach says that Eugene’s air is “very well mixed,” but “there may be subtle effects of vegetation on the microbial composition in the immediate vicinity, both by acting as a source and by altering the local microclimate.”
According to Trevor Taylor, natural areas restoration supervisor for the city of Eugene, Eugene air benefits from a relatively large amount of vegetation in and around the city.
Taylor says that one of our strengths as a city “is the amount of natural space we’ve been able to protect.”
Mhuireach also says that, while researching the effect of vegetation on the development of diseases like asthma is a priority, it could also have implications for less tangible measures of human health: “There are definitely some microbes that have been shown, at least in lab mice, to make them happier, to stimulate the release of serotonin.”