Everywhere you go, in everything you do, you are surrounded by an aura of microbes. They drift down from your hair when you scratch your head, they fly off your hand when you wave to your friend, they spew out of your mouth when you talk. Even when you sit around doing nothing, you’re sitting in your own, personal microbial bubble.
Made up of millions, billions, trillions of bacteria, yeast, cells, and cell parts, this bubble is actually more like a cloud — a cloud, new research suggests, that is unique to you. And as gross as it is to imagine everyone around you shedding microbial bits and pieces into the air, studying those clouds can be useful for people like doctors tracking down disease outbreaks and cops tracking down criminals.
The gut microbiome, often invoked in expensive probiotic-heavy diets, is probably the hottest microscopic community right now. It’s the collection of microbiota, living inside you, that helps you break down food, fight disease, and control your hunger.
But your outer body has its own microbiome, too. Your body is covered in skin, and that skin is like a vast savannah populated with millions of exotic critters. They feed on the oils seeping from your skin, dead cells, bits of organic matter, and each other. “In a single centimeter of skin, you can find thousands of bacteria,” says James Meadow, former University of Oregon researcher and co-author of a microbiome paper published…in the journal PeerJ.
Combined, the non-you cells in your body outnumber the you cells by about 10 to one. And if some sadistic scientist were to grind up and sequence all the DNA in every cell in and on your body, only about 2 percent of the genetic material would be human. The rest is microbes…
So how different could individuals’ microbial clouds really be? The two trials showed that, at least in these 11 people, microbial clouds varied significantly from person to person. They also found that different people shed microbes at different rates…
That knowledge will help shape microbiome cloud research in fields like contagious disease and forensics. In hospitals, nobody really knows how germs spread. Since leaving Oregon State University, Meadow has joined a biotech company in San Francisco that wants to use the understanding of microbial clouds to help hospitals prevent things like MRSA outbreaks.
Cops see other opportunities for the microbial cloud. Gilbert has been helping crime scene investigators use microbial residue to track down criminals. He says people pick up microbes from the soil, the air, the food they eat, and the water they wash and drink with. So an individual’s unique microbial signature could put them at the scene of a crime—or exonerate them if the microbes in their cloud match their alibi.
Any guess as to who gets the most funding, first?