It should come as no surprise that we're sharing much of our living space with bacteria. But you may not be aware that these bugs follow you around in a personal cloud that's kind-of like your very own bacterial airborne signature.
This video from Science Friday reveals how microbiologists at the University of Oregon built a special chamber for gathering samples of people's personal microbe clouds to see where these bacteria come from. Spoiler: Not all of them come from our airways or skin.
According to microbiologist Catherine Burke, research fellow at UTS ithree institute, this research builds on recent discoveries on personalised microbiomes - the collection of microbes living in and on a person's body.
"A lot of the microbes we detect in indoor environments and surfaces are the same as the types of microbes we see on human skin," says Burke. "So presumably we’re constantly shedding our own microbes onto the surfaces in the environment around us – but no-one has really demonstrated that for certain before this study."
"Because the authors used such a controlled environment, they were able to show that microbes were being shed from the human participants to the surrounding surfaces, and that after several hours, you could identify some of the participants by the microbes they shed."
Microbes are everywhere, and that's ok
According to Burke, researchers have previously shown you can get a microbial signature of someone by swabbing a person's keyboard and comparing the microbes on their hands - the researchers hope this sort of approach could prove useful in forensics.
"But they are also asking some very fundamental questions about how the environment we live in affects the microbes that live on our bodies," says Burke. "This is really important, as those microbes, commonly referred to as the human microbiome, are very important for our health and development."
Whenenver bacteria are concerned, the first question everyone wants to know is - will they make me sick? While we want to minimise our exposure to pathogens, it's worth remembering that most microbes are completely harmless, and could even be useful.
"There are millions of microbes around and on us all the time that are not pathogenic, and we think many of these are actually really vital to our health," says Burke. "We want to make sure that the environments we live in allow us to be exposed to the right kinds of microbes to encourage a healthy human microbiome."