“Examining this water…I found floating therein divers earthy particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise…and I judge that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones I have ever yet seen, upon the rind of cheese, in wheaten flour, mould, and the like.”

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

As a rule of thumb, we like to assume that if a surface exists, there’s something (or many things) living on it. These “things” are microscopic organisms – bacteria, fungi, protists, and even archaea – and they’re all very hard at work turning dead things anew into life, or even turning the nutrients in air into bits and pieces of their cells. We smell the presence of these workings, but forget to consider the thriving life forms it bespeaks.

One of the places microbial life seems likely to be particularly bountiful is in the gutters of houses. Take a sniff of your gutters sometime and you will note the aroma of activity, the gassy consequences of a microbial life well lived. Gutters were among the first habitats ever studied by microbiologists, but they have since been neglected.

Last year, when studying a small handful of gutters, in collaboration with Hilary McManus and her students at LeMoyne College (and building on the work of Jason Flores and Amanda Hale), we made a discovery. We found a zoo of fungi, green algae and amoebas in the samples. Most of these wee beasties (“animalcules,” as Leeuwenhoek would have called them) are harmless or even useful. However, yet to study the bacterial inhabitants of these gutters, and we’ve still only uncovered a fraction of what’s out there with regard to other organisms!

Past studies on water- and detritus-filled containers (tree holes, tires, bromeliads) have focused on mosquito larvae and their associated microbes. However, gutters are different. They provide a container for organic material, and they’re elevated and open. Most of the water that passes through them drains out relatively quickly, so they don’t have a tendency to house mosquito larvae like water buckets or old tires. In addition, because they are exposed to birds, squirrels, and their waste, gutters may host not only wondrous wee beasts, but also some pathogens.

Our goal is to learn more about urban ecosystems by discovering the full spectrum of microbial life inhabiting the gutters on your home. And you can help! We need volunteers to lend us their gutters for a study aimed at revealing the gutter microbiome. One caveat though. As of right now we are focused on gutters either in Raleigh, North Carolina and surrounds. Though if you happen to be driving through, we’d never turn down a sample of gutter muck.

Interested? Here’s who to contact for more information:

Michelle Musante: mmmusant@ncsu.edu

Carlos Goller: ccgoller@ncsu.edu

About the art: Wim van Egmond is a visual artist in the Netherlands where he has written about the animalcules that Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek originally described. The images on this page originally appeared here for a special project and are reposted with express permission from the artist. Left: “Finally at dawn we can hear the call of the ghost midge larva Chaoborus.” Right: “At noon life becomes more relaxed. Two colonies of Pediastrum turn their flat green cells towards the bright sun. They will lay there photosynthesizing quietly for the rest of the afternoon. A magnificent sight but the children in the background are so used to them they hardly take notice.”