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A Question on the Balance of Ecosystems on the Microbial Scale

Say that we had some living quarters on an Earth-like planet, within a moderately-sized base. The inhabitants of this base can freely roam the planet without environmental protection, and thus can bring back some less-than-pleasant microorganisms that like to group together then feed upon big sleeping things. As a result, before this base gets too large to keep proper tabs on all of its residents, the Powers that Be are investigating a sort of automated room-wide decontamination field.

This field would trigger at regular intervals, and absolutely kill everything in the room, with no regard to size or composition. Safety is paramount, but not the focus here -- what the Powers are investigating at the moment is how this might affect the microecology of these areas. Simply put, how would completely wiping a room of all microbial life once a day affect the bodies of those living in said room?

The Powers are aware that there are many beneficial microorganisms which we humans live in harmony with, such as those that help us digest. Would a regular wipe harm these, or other symbiotic microbes the Powers may be unaware of? To be clear, the residents would be nowhere near these rooms when the sweep occurs, so there would be no direct cleansing of a person's internals -- though it is suspected that sleeping in a clean room may upset some delicate balance, or throw off one's immune system.

Bonus points for explaining scalability. Perhaps a room means nothing in the grand scheme of things, since these humans will be out-and-about most of the time anyhow. But what if we did this to entire buildings -- might office workers start to suffer, spending all their time in massive clean zones?

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    $\begingroup$ Might want to give this a read: researchgate.net/blog/post/… $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Aug 19 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ If they can congregate to attack big things whether that thing is sleeping doesn't matter, At the scale of surface microbes the activity level of a host doesn't matter they would be attacking constantly. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 19 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Looking from the point of view of a microbe there is nothing to distinguish "sleepin state" from "wake state" of a human. If the microbes attack sleeping humans they also attack humans while the humans are awake and doing whatever they do outside. And no, thoroughly disinfecting clothes, bedsheets, curtains, tables, floors etc. will not harm our internal bacteria. We actually do this to the best of our ability, in, for example, hospitals or semiconductor fabrication facilities. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP there are some small physiological changes during sleep... blood pressure and surface temperature decrease, for example. Kidney function is reduced somewhat. There's other stuff with nasal mucous production and so on. Of course, if those minor changes are enough to get eaten by alien micro-organisms, then merely falling ill would be enough to render you snack-like... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Aug 19 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime: Yes, for a given human blood pressure, temperature, etc. vary a little between sleep and wakefulness. However, isn't it the case that those differences are quite a bit lower than the differences between two different humans? So that a microbe which needs somewhat lower blood pressure does not need to wait for a person to sleep when it can get that blood pressure in any number of wake persons. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 15:14
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Nothing, really.

Here's what you aren't doing - getting rid of bacteria which is harmful to humans. Any bacteria that you bring in which is harmful to humans can live inside humans, and since humans are exempt from this treatment, all it takes is a human inside your sterile room for a few minutes, have him cough a few times, and presto! the room is now non-sterile and back to it's harmful to human state. The stuff you will kill is stuff non-harmful to humans, like fungi or really small mites. That said, there's a few different kinds of fungi that need to grow to produce spores which are harmful to humans, so you won't have to worry about wall mold.

The fact remains that diffusion is a really strong force. If you irradiate one room at a time, randomly, you won't clean the base of airborne bacteria, because it'll just keep circulating, and reproduces fast when given a non-competitive environment (i.e. a human). Ditto to a building, it'll just take a few days to go back to normal.

Now, would there be problems for humans if we just up and killed every single microorganism on the face of the planet that wasn't already in a human? No. The only microorganism humans have a symbiotic relationship with is mitochondria. So long as we can get nutrition, (which isn't dependant on bacteria either) humans will be fine.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mitochondria are organelles, not microorganisms. Their very distant ancestors were microorganisms. As for examples of microorganisms which have a symbiotic relationship with humans, consider Saccharomyces cerevisae... and a world without beer. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ I know they aren't technically microorganisms, I just hate their classification as organelles given they have their own DNA, so I fight the system where at all possible. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Aug 19 at 17:12

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