Brain and Body

Forget Fingerprints. You Can be Identified by Your Microbial Cloud.

September 30, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Personal cloud
Photo credit: Daniela Vladimirova/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Everyone emits a unique cloud of microbes with every movement, and now scientists believe the lingering particles could be used as an identification marker.

The classic “whodunit” case usually involves a sleek detective fishing around for fingerprints or other clues that could pin a suspect to the crime. But now, research suggests that criminals can leave behind evidence in the very air they breathed. Every human has a personal microbial cloud that creates an identifiable signature as distinctive as the oily traces embedded in the unique swirls of our fingers.

We’re all covered in microscopic organisms — from the tips of our eyelashes to our inner guts. Carolyn Bohach, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho, told the Scientific American that all the living bacteria inside our bodies would fill a half-gallon jug. So it’s no surprise that our bodies constantly cast off a cloud of microbes, dust, clothing particles, and our own bodily particles.

SEE ALSO: Ancient Bacteria Produce Elixir of Life

No matter what you’re doing — reaching for a cup of coffee, waving to someone across the street, typing a message to your boss — each action will leave behind a microbial cloud. Further, every individual’s microbe population, or biome, is unlike any other human being’s on the planet. Thus, scientists think that these universal clouds of microscopic creatures could serve as unique identifiers.

The research team had 11 participants sit in a sanitized experimental chamber, one by one, in order to sequence the DNA of microbes left behind in the air after each person left. Why such a small study size? The work itself was tremendously tedious. In the 312 samples of air and dust obtained from the chamber, the researchers found and analyzed over 14 million sequences coming from thousands of different types of bacteria.

“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,” lead author James F. Meadow said in a press release.

Meadow and his colleagues found a lot of Streptococcus, a bacteria commonly found in the mouth, as well as Propionibacterium and Corynebacterium, typical skin residents. However, different combinations of the bacteria were identified for almost all study participants. For the first time ever, the study demonstrated that individuals do indeed leave behind their own unique microbial clouds.

In the future, the research may help identify the spread of infections and diseases in public places, like schools and hospitals. It’s always been somewhat of a mystery how germs seem to creep around hospitals without direct contact, but microbiome cloud research could help better understand contagions.

Perhaps one day, detecting personal microbial clouds will even help CSI investigators and forensic teams, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. While it’s true that criminals would certainly carry unique samples of microbes, it would be difficult to properly distinguish them from the lingering microbes of other people, animals, and objects who also surrounded the crime scene.

So for now, criminals don’t have to worry about leaving behind traces of incriminating bacterial clouds, but we’ve all seen how fast technology advances. In the years to come, culprits might have a lot more to worry about than hiding their fingerprints. There’s no way to turn off your body’s natural functions.


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