The Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota) Frontier Research Center is implementing a Genki-Kûkan™ research initiative to develop spaces that can improve the mental and physical well-being of people. In Part 1, we discussed Toyota’s motivations to carry out this research and provided an overview of the research itself. In Part 2, we spoke to the members of this research project, Masakazu Ito, Satoshi Katahira and Akinobu Toyoda, who are engaged in air quality research, a distinctive area of the Genki-Kûkan™ research initiative.
The air we breathe is invisible and often taken for granted, so the quality of air rarely gets people’ attention in their daily lives, though an individual generally breathes in about 10,000 liters or more of air per day. Worldwide, there are a number of reports that document and discuss the harmful impacts of poor air quality on human health, including particularly the effects of PM2.5 particulate matter, viruses, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are responsible for sick building syndrome. Unlike those studies, in this research, we focus on the positive effects of air quality on people.
What we are particularly interested in is the effects of the naturally occurring air quality associated with forests on humans. Recent studies have identified a range of impacts on humans as a result of reduced exposure to nature due to rapid urbanization. One example is imbalanced immune responses, which lead to a range of allergic diseases. By contrast, there have been reports that spending time in forests helps stabilize the autonomic nerve system. We believe that one of the factors behind these effects is the quality of the air in forests, in which microorganisms and chemical substances play a particularly key role.
Throughout history, humans have spent much of their time living alongside nature, coexisting and coevolving with it. We assume that the various microorganisms and chemical substances found in nature and taken into our bodies through lungs and skin are important for maintaining our mental and physical health. Based on this hypothesis, we firstly characterized the microorganisms and chemical substances in the air in nature, and then we will analyze their effects on humans in order to identify the quality of air that promotes human well-being.
One difficulty is that we are dealing with extremely small quantities of microorganisms and chemical substances. For example, comparing to the studies of human gastrointestinal microorganisms, we need more sophisticated sampling and analytical methods to deal with the tiny amount of microorganisms in one cubic meter of air, which is about one hundred millionth of the quantity of those in the gastrointestinal tract. So far, by taking advantage of the cutting-edge biotechnologies acquired through biofuel projects, we have managed to develop our own technologies for analyzing the microorganisms and chemical substances in air. 1,2,3,4,5
To better understand the characteristics of the air quality in nature, we also need advanced information processing technologies to decipher the tremendous amount of data obtained during the study (i.e., big data). One of the outcomes of this research is Biophilic Score™, a scale for measuring air quality developed jointly with the National Institute of Genetics (Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture) by using state-of-the-art statistical and machine learning technologies of both organizations. These technologies make it possible to estimate how close the quality of a certain air is to that in nature.6,7,8,9
Biophilic Score™ is a space evaluation technology that employs the supervised Latent Dirichlet Allocation (sLDA) machine learning technique to correlate the information associated with spaces (temperature and humidity, foliage amount, people’s perceptions, etc.) with those associated with air quality (quantity and type of microorganisms and chemical substances).
Efforts are being made these days to incorporate green spaces into our lives in various ways, ranging from tracts of green land in the middle of cities, to housing estates surrounded by greenbelts, and to leafy plants in offices. If we apply Biophilic Score™ to these green spaces, then we can quantitatively evaluate the air quality changes as a result of incorporating greenery into spaces.
For example, we have evaluated the test spaces we created on the scale (see figure below).
By quantifying natural air quality, we are able to design spaces that better resemble the nature. For example, as part of work style reform, the green offices created based on scientific evidence can improve the mental and physical health of employees and also enable corporate health management. We also believe that if we can create urban landscapes, of which the air quality is close to that in nature, then the families living there will be both healthy and happy. Bearing this in mind, we are collaborating with Pasona Panasonic Business Service (PBS) and Toyota Home in an effort to develop comfortable indoor and urban environments.
- Joint research between Toyota and PBS(https://www.pasona-pbs.co.jp/topics/2019/20191113.html)
- MIYOSHI MIRAITO(https://www.miyoshi-miraito.jp/)
- National Institute of Genetics(https://www.nig.ac.jp/nig/)
So far we have obtained a huge body of scientific data regarding the quality of air in nature. Next, we are planning to clarify how natural air quality relates to human health. Here, we use the term “natural air” to generally denote the air in nature, but in fact the characteristics of “natural air” vary with the environment and it may exert diverse effects on humans. In this regard, we aim to develop a spatial design theory based on the scientific evidence of the “impact of air quality on humans”, which we will identify through this research. We can then expand the theory to all areas of life, from mobility to housing and cities, to contribute to the creation of happy cities in the future.
Microbes inhabit almost everywhere on Earth, and play a fundamental role in the material cycle of environments. Since these microbes are sensitive to environmental changes, the microbial community structure changes immediately as the environment changes. This phenomenon allows us to consider the microbial community as an extremely accurate environmental sensor. In order to utilize this microbial environmental sensor in society, we have continued joint research with Toyota for three years.
Our research will lead to the creation of environments that naturally make us healthy and comfortable, as if turning on the lights automatically when you enter the room.
Please look forward to the future that we open up.
Vice-Director and Professor at the National Institute of Genetics, Head of the Advanced Genomics Center, and Chairman of the Society of Genome Microbiology, Japan
After working in various positions, including Associate Professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology and Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Professor Kurokawa took up his current roles in 2016.
- “The effect of biophilic design on indoor air quality Part 1 Comprehensive analysis of volatile organic compounds” (Presentation #P-43, 2019 Annual Meeting, Society of Indoor Environment, Japan)
- “The effect of biophilic design on indoor air quality Part 2 Microbiome analysis by 16S amplicon sequencing” (Presentation #P-43, 2019 Annual Meeting, Society of Indoor Environment, Japan)
- “Source estimation of airborne microbiome in biophilic design spaces” (Presentation #P-75, the 14th Annual Meeting, Society of Genome Microbiology, Japan)
- “Study on the space of biophilia toward human well-being (Part 3) Air quality assessment: airborne chemosignals” (Presentation #40039, 2020 Annual Convention, Architectural Institute of Japan)
- “Study on the space of biophilia toward human well-being (Part 4) Air quality assessment: airborne microbiomes” (Presentation #40040, 2020 Annual Convention, Architectural Institute of Japan)
- Patent application: 2021-005128
- “Study of airborne and skin microbiome Part 2 Comprehensive analysis of indoor and outdoor airborne microbiome” (Presentation #P-57D, the 15th Annual Meeting, Society of Genome Microbiology, Japan)
- “Study of airborne and skin microbiome Part 6 naturalness prediction model based on airborne microbiome” (Presentation #P-61D, the 15th Annual Meeting, Society of Genome Microbiology, Japan)
- “Study of airborne and skin microbiome Part 7 Evaluation of air quality using naturalness prediction model” (Presentation #P-62A, the 15th Annual Meeting, Society of Genome Microbiology, Japan)
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