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Your cell phone carries your personal bacteria


Cell phones actually reflect the personal microbial world of their owners and may be used as bacterial and environmental sensors

smartphoneWashington: Cell phones actually reflect the personal microbial world of their owners and may be used as bacterial and environmental sensors, scientists say.

Researchers from the University of Oregon focused on the personal microbiome – the collection of microorganisms on items regularly worn or carried by a person.

Researchers sequenced microbes from the dominant-hand index fingers and thumbs of 17 subjects and from the touchscreens of their smartphones.

The study found smartphones closely resembled the microbiome sampled from their owner’s finger, with 82 per cent of the most common bacteria on participants’ fingers also found on their phones.

Women were found to be more closely connected, microbiologically speaking, to their phones than were men, researchers said.

Although men and women were both statistically similar to their own phones, the relationship was stronger for women than for men.

The most commonly found bacteria were from three genera that are ubiquitous on and in humans: Streptococcus, which is commonly found in the mouth, and Staphylococcus and Corynebacterium, both common skin residents.

The analyses focused on categorising whole microbial communities rather than identifying pathogens.

The findings emerged from sequences representing more than 7,000 different types of bacteria found in the 51 samples taken from fingers and phones.

“This project was a proof-of-concept to see if our favourite and most closely held possessions microbially resemble us,” said lead author James F Meadow, a postdoctoral researcher in the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon.

“We are ultimately interested in the possibility of using personal effects as a non-invasive way to monitor our health and our contact with the surrounding environment,” he said.

Future uses could include real-time sequencing technology to screen the smartphones of health-care workers and hospital visitors, rather than the people themselves, for possible exposure to pathogens that could be carried into or out of a medical facility.

Also, phones are ubiquitous and come into direct contact with so much of a person’s environment that they might also be valuable for analysing exposure to “biological threats or unusual sources of environmental microbes that don’t necessarily end up integrated into our human microbiome,” researchers said.

The findings also present opportunities for future scientific use, as phones could be used for easy and non-invasive sampling in large-scale microbial studies, they said.

The research appears in the journal PeerJ.


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