Just like you have a unique microbiome in your gut, you have your own personalized airspace too, say scientists
Remember being totally grossed out by the Charlie Brown character Pig Pen as a cloud of dirt and dust followed him around like a shadow? Well, hate to break it to you, but looks like that's an unseen reality for all of us. We all have our own personal cloud of bacteria surrounding us at all times, according to a new study in PeerJ.
But don't get grossed out and run a bleach bath just yet. This news is a good thing, say the University of Oregon scientists. Just like we all have a unique microbiome inside our guts, this is just an extension of that bacterial signature into our personal airspace. (Speaking of personal germs, here's 10 Personal Items You Don't Want to Share.)
In the small study, researchers tested the air around 11 people and found when they breathed out, their CO2 registered more than 14 million sequences representing thousands of different types of bacteria. It wasn't the amount of bacteria that surprised them though; rather it was how much they could read from it.
"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," said James F. Meadow, Ph.D., a biologist and lead author of the paper. "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."
The implications of this dirty new science are immense. The researchers say that each bacterial signature is so unique that it could act as a biological signature in the future, identifying people in the same way we now use fingerprints or retinal scans—but much less invasive. In fact, like something out of a sci-fi movie, the person wouldn't even have to know they were being scanned and identified. They add that police may also be able to use it to analyze crime scenes, identifying who has been somewhere even when no DNA traces can be found.
There is still a ways to go, however, as more research is needed to determine how long the cloud stays intact after a person leaves and if it's disrupted by the environment, weather, or the presence of other people. And while there's no way to not constantly exhale microbes (sorry!), it may be possible to alter the makeup of them through lifestyle changes.
In the meantime, the more we learn about bacteria and their impact on our daily lives the more it becomes apparent we need to make peace with our tiny overlords. So eat your yogurt, skip the mouth wash (it kills off good bacteria), and smile.