New research confirms what we have long suspected: the human body is a breeding ground for millions of bacteria; so numerous indeed that each of us is constantly surrounded by a ‘microbial cloud’. The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Oregon, shows that this miasma, of microscopic organisms, is as unique to an individual as his or her fingerprints, and can be used to establish one’s identity.
It is a well-known fact that our bodies, both on the inside and outside, contain 10 times more bacterial cells than actual human cells. In addition to their usual stamping grounds in our mouths, on our skin, in our digestive tracts and even under our eyelashes, these microbes constitute more than 98-percent of our genetic material. The term “microbiome” refers to this diverse populace of bacteria, fungi and virus that inhabit our bodies, all through our lives.
In the new research, recently published in the PeerJ journal, the scientists have devised an innovative technique, with the help of which an individual can be identified from his or her unique microbial aura. Led by researcher James Meadow, the team discerned three major components that commonly make up this cloud: dust particles, minuscule pieces of our clothing and microscopic organisms that tent in our bodies and on our skin. Speaking about the find, Dr. Ben Neuman, of the University of Reading, said:
You can smell someone’s BO [body odor], and now you know these are all the things crawling on you – how marvelous. It’s one of those things that make you feel sick about living next to other people, if you knew it went on.
For the research, the scientists asked three volunteers to spend four hours inside a completely-sanitized sealed chamber, with purified air. To prevent contamination of the air, each of them wore identical clothes and, was made to sit in a disinfected chair. At the end of four hours, they took a short break, and then returned for a second session of two hours. All the items, present in the room, actually came in touch with the volunteers’ microbial cloud.
Upon analyzing the samples, the researchers were able to identify the microbes unique to each of the individuals. According to the team, the most abundantly-found bacteria were Streptococcus, which resides inside our mouth, and Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium that live on our skin. To see if this microbial cloud could be used to establish the identity of an individual, the scientists brought in another eight volunteers, and repeated the experiment. Meadow explained:
We expected that we would be able to detect the human microbiome in the air around a person, but we were surprised to find that we could identify most of the occupants just by sampling their microbial cloud.
Regarding the potential applications of the newly-developed technology, the team believes that it could be used by law enforcement officials to identify a criminal, based on his or her microbial aura. More realistically, perhaps, the technique can be used to identity the spread of disease-causing microbes in hospitals.