Smartphones - a playground for microbes

The trillions of bacteria on our phones reveals what bugs live on and in you, plus where you've been, research by scientists has found.
27 June 2014


Your mobile phone can be used to provide a microbial cross-section of what'sAssorted smartphones living on and in you, and what bugs you've encountered during the day, new research has shown.

"More people on the planet have a mobile phone than access to a toilet," University of Oregon scientist and lead research on the new study James Meadow points out.

"And we each touch our phones over 100 times per day. So we wondered whether we could recover from phones the personal microbiome - the individual collection of bugs that live alongside us on our skin and inside us."

Seventeen volunteers provided swabs of their thumbs and index fingers as well as the screens of their smartphones.

DNA analysis of the bugs recovered from the swabs could accurately tie a phone to a person, more so even in women than men. "We don't know why that is," says Meadow.  

But he doesn't dispute the suggestion that the absence of pockets, or a greater tendency to talk, might lead to more handling of the phone and hence a stronger microbial profile.

Alongside the person's own bugs are also incidental bacterial passengers that a person encounters during their daily journey through their world. These bugs, which might not be detected in a person's own microbiome, nonetheless might inform our understanding of patterns of ill-health, disease risk or even disease transmission in the workplace.

"In the future, we're envisaging a system whereby a doctor or a nurse could swipe their mobile over a machine that could look for disease-causing organisms that the healthcare worker could be about to bring to work, or bugs that they might be about to take home to their families. So this approach will enable us to gain new insights into the microbes we pick up along the way."


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