This is a type of bacteria called Streptococcus and a whole cloud of it is floating around you.
© Photo Quest Ltd/Science Photo Library/Corbis

If you’re one of those people who have an unnatural fear of germs and bacteria, you might want to just stop reading right now. This story will force you to move into your shower for at least a week and starting scrubbing your skin until you strike bone.

Researchers from the University of Oregon discovered that every person has a cloud of airborne microbes or a “human microbiome” around them consisting of different forms of bacteria. The results of this discovery were published in a study on Tuesday in the journal PeerJ.

Scientists discovered this microbial cloud through an experiment in which they examined the emissions of 11 human participants. That’s right, someone got paid to handle other people’s emissions. Make whatever joke you need to yourself in order to move on to the next part of the story.

Each participant was placed in a “sanitized custom experimental climate chamber” for an extended period of time as the scientists sequenced the microbes in the air surrounding them. Then they compared it to the air in an adjacent, unoccupied chamber and found that “most occupants could be clearly detected by their airborne bacterial emissions as well as their contribution to settled particles,” according to the study.

The cloud samples consisted of bacteria such as Streptococcus, a form of bacteria most commonly found in the mouth, and Propionibacterium and Corynebacterium that both live on human skin. The discovery of this cloud could lead to a new understand about how certain infectious diseases spread between people in enclosed spaces.

This breakthrough could even lead to forensic applications to identify where certain people have been based on the location of their individual bacteria cloud. The study’s abstract states that these clouds can lead to “the identification of some individual occupants.”

James F. Meadow, a former postdoctoral researcher with the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center who served as the lead author of the study, says in a statement that they didn’t expect the bacteria clouds to be so unique to each participant.

“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,” says Meadow.

Of course, we’re a long way away from developing some kind of machine that can track the human microbiome of a person for forensic investigation purposes although it would greatly improve the plot line and comedy for the final season of “CSI.” In fact, we might be closer to identifying people by the shape of their ears.

A pilot study published in 2011 in the Journal of Forensic Science devised a “simple, reproducible method” of identifying individuals using four parts of the ear and measuring the edges of their anatomical joints.

I hope these lead to some kind of technological breakthrough for confirming identities. Having an ear or bacteria cloud identifier for our smartphones are way cooler than a boring, four-digit password. Besides, we all know we’re just using our birthdays.


You're surrounded by a cloud of bacteria right now