Our Personal Microbial Clouds: The Pig-Pen In Us All
Warning: Do not read this if you’re an extreme germaphobe, trust me
Researchers have discovered that most people have a bacterial cloud surrounding them that is distinctive enough to specifically identify them like a fingerprint.
Yes you read that right. This personalized invisible cloud is with us at all times and travels wherever we go. Whenever you shake someone’s hand, you’re both within each other’s nasty cloud of invisible nastiness.
Where do these microbes come from? Well, each have these amazing things called microbiota.
Our microbiota consists of huge colonies of microbes on and within us consisting of bacteria,, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. It can be unnerving to contemplate but their integration into what we consider US is so complete, we couldn’t be US without them. Take a gander at these stats:
- There are 3 microbial cells within you for every YOU cell.
- If you were to sequence all genes in your body, only 2 percent would be human
- You are the home for an astounding 100 trillion microbes
- All together they would add up to about a 3 pound extra organ
These microbes can be vastly different from each other but they essentially come in three major classifications
Commensals: They benefit from us but don’t impact us in any significant way
Symbiotics: They benefit from us and we benefit from them
Pathogenics: They generally are not good for us at all. Luckily they are relatively few in number
The microbiota in our bodies perform a host of beneficial and even critical activities aiding things like digestion, our immune system, neuro-chemical imbalances like depression…the list goes on and on. An imbalance of these organisms have been linked to or potentially implicated in numerous diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer etc.
It’s important to note that these guys aren’t just hitchhikers that generally help out; we have been co-evolving and integrating with them since almost the dawn of evolution. This is expressed in the somewhat controversial hologenome theory which states that evolution should not consider merely the evolution of an organism alone but the organism with the entirety of its microbial communities. The ultimate expression of this co-evolution is another more well-supported theory called endosymbiosis. This states that many cellular components of multi-cellular life evolved through the joining of separate single-celled organisms. Common examples include the energy-producing mitochondria in every cell (which is why they have their own DNA) and even the light harvesting chloroplasts of plants and algae.
Microbiota are not limited to just our insides either. They exist and proliferate unseen on our skin, hair, and mouths and beyond. It may sound new to you but we have known for a while that our microbiota can become airborne and form a persistent cloud around us. Untold thousands of microbes and cell fragments from our personal microbiota are released into a cloud whenever we talk or gesture or breathe or even engage in the wonderful pastime of farting . That certainly lends new meaning to “Uploading To The Cloud”. So anytime we scratch our head or wave to a friend, we are continually adding to the million or so particles floating around us. I don’t even want to think what happens when we have sex. Even our clothes are not a barrier for their release into our microbial cloud. We are all then like essentially even grosser versions of Pig-Pen from the Peanuts.
University of Oregon researchers decided they wanted to determine how detectable our clouds are and if they were distinct enough to tie a specific person to a specific cloud. They did this in two separate experiments. The first used a sanitized room and sampled the air a meter away from each of the 11 test subjects while they surfed the web over a four hour period. They then collected the samples and burned away all the non-dna. This was then sequenced using a technique called Short-Read 16S. This looks at short snippets of specific ribosomal RNA strands called 16S. These segments are quite distinctive and so they can be used to identify which microbe they belong to. They also did another similar experiment but instead collected the samples that landed on the floor during only a 90 minute window of time.
The results were a surprise to the researchers. They found that most of the 11 test subjects had unique finger-print-like microbial clouds surrounding them. After four hours, if they left the room, it could still potentially be determined who was there just by sampling the air of the empty room.
The authors concluded:
“Our results confirm that an occupied space is microbially distinct from an unoccupied one, and and demonstrate for the first time that individuals release their own personalized microbial cloud,” the authors concluded.”
Putting such a detection technology into common use won’t be easy though. These experiments were done in a very controlled sanitized environment where subjects hung out for hours. Often we are in locations for very limited periods of time where many people have been leaving their own bugs.
Still, It’s not unreasonable to expect that the detection of microbial clouds in the future will become increasingly sensitive and sophisticated. This offers interesting possibilities for the future (don’t they all?).
This could obviously be used to track down disease outbreaks, especially in hospitals. The spread of germs in hospitals has caused increasing concern over the years especially when they’re infections that have become resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics like MRSA. We still have much to learn how these spread and bacterial clouds could provide critical information.
These Pig-Pen clouds also offer unique opportunities for police criminal investigations. Being able to sample the air of a crime scene could reveal clues as to the microbial signatures of people that were recently there.
Conversely, since people pick up microbes in their environment from food, the air, water, and soil, they could be implicated in a crime if their cloud shows contamination from the specific crime scene. You could also potentially be exonerated if your microbial cloud matches your alibi.
This makes me think of ways this system could be gamed. Perhaps people in the future could sample and replicate someone else’s cloud to create an artificial microbial cloud to frame them. Maybe, in a desire to remain truly anonymous in the future, people will attempt to mask their cloud or minimize it somehow so they can’t be easily tracked.
Finally, if you are a germaphobe, I apologize for likely adding a new phobia to your resume…biotaCloudaPhobia
I made that up
Image credits: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/105975397454953839/