Our phones could be used to map our bacteria (and that’s a good thing)

If you’ve ever joked that your phone feels like part of you, you were closer to the truth than you might have thought. According to a new study, our smartphones could be used to map our microbes. Scientists from the University of Oregon found that over 80% of the bacteria that makes up our personal bacterial “fingerprint” (known as a microbiome) end up on our screens as we tweet, text, and swipe left up to 150 times a day.

They took samples from the index fingers and thumbs of 17 people and sequenced the DNA of their microbes. Then they swabbed the participants’ phones. They discovered 7000 types of bacteria in 51 samples and found that 82% of the most common bacteria present on participants’ fingers were also found on their phones, including streptococcus, which is commonly found in the mouth, and staphylococcus and corynebacterium, which naturally occur on the skin. Both men and women shared bacteria with their phones, but the connection was stronger for women, meaning we really are more attached to our gadgets.

While it might be a bit icky to think about smearing your microbial DNA over our favourite tech, it’s normal to transfer bacteria to things you use every day, however well you wash your hands, and all of the research participants were healthy. However, back in 2011, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London took nearly 400 samples from mobile phones and hands in 12 British cities and discovered that one in six was contaminated with, ahem, “faecal matter”. So lather up just in case.

Obviously this was just a small study, but lead researcher Dr James Meadow said it proved that our favourite possessions carry more information about us than we realise. His team now plans to do more research to find out if phones could be used as a non-invasive way to monitor and prevent the spread of disease by ensuring that, for example, hospital visitors aren’t carrying harmful bacteria in or out of the building. It could also potentially be a way to assess our physical state in future, which means a whole new way phones could be used for health tracking. But it doesn’t mean scientists will one day be able to clone you if you leave your mobile lying around. Probably.

Image via NIAID’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley