Recent studies suggest that each person is surrounded by a personalized bacterial cloud, which is as unique as our fingerprints.
The experiment was conducted by researchers from the University of Oregon, who analyzed microbes emitted by 11 different subjects, aged 20 to 33, in a heavily sanitized lab chamber.
These friendly bacteria which reside outside and inside every individual’s body are known as a microbiome, and scientists expected these microbial clouds to display some interesting features. Previous research had shown that people spread these microscopic “companions” all over their environment, including on other individuals.
Throughout the experiment, each person was alone in the room for an extended length of time, and bacteria were collected using air filters (for airborne particles) and settling petri dishes (for surface biological particles).
Experts also compared the occupied chamber with a separate vacant one, in order to see how bacterial colonies differed in the two environments. Two separate studies were carried out, and the 312 samples identified in air and dust were shown to be ridden with thousands of different bacteria, amounting to more than 14 million sequences.
Within four hours most of the subjects could be identified thanks to a unique combination of bacteria that their presence had brought there. It was also established that airborne samples were more clearly differentiated than settled ones, retrieved from dust.
Researchers detected several commonly encountered microbe communities, such as Streptococus (usually teeming in the mouth), Proprionibacterium and Corynebacterium (normally found on skin). Although all study participants had such bacteria surrounding them, concentrations varied for each individual.
Experts concluded that every person has a personal bacterial cloud, emitting a specific pattern of microbes into the air. That pattern is as complex and unique as a fingerprint.
“Our results confirm that an occupied space is microbially distinct from an unoccupied one, and demonstrate for the first time that individuals release their own personalized microbial cloud”, explained the scientists.
The “microbial cloud signature” was a surprising find for the researchers. While they had expected to detect human microbiome in the air, marking the person’s presence, it was baffling that this combination of bacteria would be so easily distinguishable between different individuals.
This research, published in the journal PeerJ., allows us to gain further insight into the way human microbes are released and transmitted throughout the environment. As a result, we might make a breakthrough in understanding how contagious disease is spread, especially in confined spaces.
According to the study authors, those who live in industrialized countries stay indoors around 90% of the time, and are exposed to a variety of microbiomes from the people around them. By studying these bacterial clouds more carefully, we might reduce outbreaks through measures such as increased ventilation or smarter office design.
In addition, these findings might prove of assistance to forensic experts, who might discover where suspects have been, based on the contents of their microbial clouds.
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