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Families bring their bacteria with them wherever they go, study finds

Posted On 2014 Sep 01
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Visual aid portraying bacterial community distribution This particular image shows the microbes that follow people as they pass into a hotel. ©Image from video courtesy of DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Visual aid portraying bacterial community distribution
This particular image shows the microbes that follow people as they pass into a hotel.
©Image from video courtesy of DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

(Relaxnews) – Millions of bacteria populate the home and in light of mounting evidence that some may actually play an important role in keeping us healthy, researchers are aiming to learn more about them.

A collaboration of the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, The Home Microbiome Project provides a detailed analysis of what squats in houses and apartments unbeknownst to the residing humans.

It is well known that many strains of “friendly” bacteria reside in the digestive tract and are essential for warding off sickness, and the research team’s objective was to identify the species of microbes in our environment and eventually distinguish between the friends and the foes.

“They are essential for us to understand our health in the 21st century,” says lead study author Jack Gilbert, an Argonne microbiologist.

In the study, seven households were examined for a total of 18 people, three dogs and one cat.

Researchers swabbed their participants’ hands, feet and noses everyday over the course of six weeks. They also swabbed heavily touched areas in the house like doorknobs, light switches, floors and countertops. Argonne researchers then performed DNA analysis for species identification.

“We wanted to know how much people affected the microbial community on a house’s surfaces and on each other,” says Gilbert.

As results show, people populate their homes with their own microbes, and when three of the participating families moved, it took just one day for the new house to resemble the old, bacterially speaking.

If the residents left on vacation, the microbe communities changed just as quickly.

Couples share significantly more microbes and they share them with any young children they may have.

Researchers found that members of the same household had more or less the same microbial communities on their hands whereas noses were more varied.

The presence of pets meant additional bacteria from soil and plants, brought in after time spent outdoors.

If all this sounds perfectly filthy, even the pathogenic strains don’t actually cause harm unless there’s a problem with immune response, likely caused by an imbalance in the microbiota in the digestive tract.

“It’s also quite possible that we are routinely exposed to harmful bacteria — living on us and in our environment — but it only causes disease when our immune systems are otherwise disrupted,” says Gilbert.

Gilbert pointed out that in addition to the obvious knowledge about health that could be obtained from further research on home bacterial communities, the study could lead to advances in forensic science, saying his team could easily identify the homes based on their bacteria.

The study was published in the journal Science.

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