Imagine if you were being followed by someone wherever you went, whatever you did? What if that someone affected your health, weight, mind, behaviour? Wouldn’t it be spooky? Well, there is enough reason to want to find out about that someone but the good news is that its within our bodies and not someone/something outside — the collection of microbes in and on your body, your human microbiome.
An extensive study shows that the microbial communities we carry in and on our bodies known as the human microbiome have the potential to uniquely identify individuals, much like a fingerprint. Scientists demonstrated that personal microbiomes contain enough distinguishing features to identify an individual over time. By sampling this microbial mist, it is possible to tell whether it has been emitted by a man or a woman – and even who it belongs to.
Whats more interesting is the implications of these studies. Clearly, the microbes are affected by their environment and ecology suggested that our unique microbial residents are tuned to the environment of our body, our genetics, diet, and developmental history in such a way that they stick with us and help to fend off less-friendly microbial invaders over time.
Each one of us supposedly gives off millions of bacteria from our human microbiome to the air around us every day, and that cloud of bacteria can be traced back to an individual. The personal microbial cloud—the airborne microbes we emit into the air—examined the microbial connection we have with the air around us and each of one of us possesses a unique ‘microbial cloud signature’.
To test the individualized nature of the personal microbial cloud, microbes were sequenced from the air surrounding 11 different people in a sanitized experimental chamber. Each volunteer was given clean clothing to wear and sat on a plastic chair that had been disinfected. But as time went on, it became clear they were emitting millions and millions of bugs. Some came from their breath, others from their skin or perhaps even their sweat or hair.
The study found that most of the occupants sitting alone in the chamber could be identified within 4 hours just by the unique combinations of bacteria in the surrounding air.
The striking results were driven by several groups of bacteria that are ubiquitous on and in humans, such as Streptococcus, which is commonly found in the mouth, and Propionibacterium and Corynebacterium, both common skin residents. While these common human-associated microbes were detected in the air around all people in the study, the authors found that the different combinations of those bacteria were the key to distinguishing among individual people.
The research sheds light on the extent to which we release our human microbiome to our surrounding environment, and might help understand the mechanisms involved in the spread of infectious diseases in buildings. The results also suggest potential forensic applications, for example to identify or determine where a person has been. The discovery could be used by forensic scientists to place a suspect at a crime scene, though it is unclear whether individual occupants can be detected in a crowd of other people.
Forget fingerprints. The key to your identity lies in your microbial cloud.