60-Second Science

Mobile Phones Carry Owners' Microbiomes

The bacteria found on someone's mobile phone is a good match for the most common kinds of bacteria that live on their hands. Christopher Intagliata reports


This year, the number of mobile phones on cell networks is expected to surpass the Earth's population. "More people now own cell phones than actually have access to working toilets." James Meadow, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon. Hidden in the data is the reality that some people work on their phones…on toilets.
If that grosses you out, consider this: "So it turns out we're just really leaky animals. We just, we leave our bacteria everywhere we go." Including, of course, our phones.
Meadow and his colleagues took a census of the bacteria on thumbs and index fingers of 17 volunteers—and on their smartphone touch screens. Overall, they ID’ed over 7,000 types.
Looking at just the most common bacteria, those that appear more than 0.1 percent of the time, they found an 82 percent similarity between the microbiomes of fingers and phones. Meaning our phones are a pretty good mirror of ourselves, microbially, at least. The results appear in the journal PeerJ. [James F. Meadow, Adam E. Altrichter and Jessica L. Green, Mobile phones carry the personal microbiome of their owners]
"We have always been covered in bacteria… and we will always be covered in bacteria." So the fact that our phones are also covered in bacteria is no reason for concern. In fact, the researchers say that mobile phones may hold untapped potential as personal microbiome sensors. App developers, take note.
—Christopher Intagliata
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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