Bacterial Biomes Could Assist Medical Science, Police Work

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. Coli bacteria.

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of E. Coli bacteria. Photo: NAIAD.

Your physical self is pretty disgusting when you examine it in detail. I mean extreme detail. A very close look reveals all manner of bacteria and cells gathered around your body in a microbial cloud.

Old skin cells, bacteria from burping and farting, and particles from picking your nose, blinking your eyes, or just sitting still slough off your body. They transfer to people who walk past you, and they end up on the walls and the floor you pass, creating a footprint of where you have been.

James Meadow, a former University of Oregon researcher, succinctly states, “If I scratch my head, thousands of skin cells, cell fragments, bacteria, and fungi get airborne,” and much of that debris will come from the outer biome that constantly surrounds your physical form.

Meadow goes on to explain in a WIRED post, both your inner body and your outer body have their own microbiome. Furthermore, cells in those bacterial biomes outnumber your “you” cells by about a factor of 10 to one.

Rather than just being disgusting, this bacteria field you transport could lead to interesting advances in how scientists track disease transmission. Given enough information about individuals in a surrounding areas, scientists could potentially examine shared bacteria and find out origination points of diseases while also more accurately tracking their potential spread.

Police might develop an interest in these biomes because they can help solve criminal cases. Crime scene investigators can pick up bacteria from the ground, in the air, and on food to determine whether or not any specific person was at the initial scene of a crime. Bacteria from an individual’s sandwich could end up implicating him.

Meadows completed research on groups of individuals who needed to do nothing more than sit in a room and play on a laptop. Particles the participants’ bodies left on floor sensors captured parts of their individual biomes, and those sensors showed that each individual sloughed off particles at different rates and that each person showed a significantly different biome from the next.

This uniqueness is the quality that makes disease tracking and advanced police work possible. Even so, this research is only the beginning. Advanced, reliable tracking will require extensive databases about human differences—including more information about our DNA. We’re clearly on our way, but there is much work to be done.

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