Dusting for Microbial Fingerprints

Each home contains over 7,000 species of microbe which can be used to identify the region and nature of the home’s occupants, a study from University of Colorado Boulder and North Carolina State University revealed this week.

Dust was analysed from about 1,200 homes in the US and showed that some 2,000 species of fungi and more than 5,000 bacterial species were present on average in each. The results, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also indicated a relationship between the types of microbes found and the occupants or location of each home.

“Every day, we’re surrounded by a vast array of organisms in our homes, most of which we can’t see,” said Associate Professor Noah Fierer, a co-author of the study from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at CU- Boulder, adding “We live in a microbial zoo, and this study was an attempt to catalog that diversity.”

The types of fungal species present appeared to give a good indication of the area the sample was taken in. “The reason is that most fungi blow in from outdoors via soil and leaves,” explained Fierer.

The bacterial population, however, gave a better idea of what kind of people – and animals – were living in the home. Researchers were able to predict the presence of cats or dogs, and even tentatively the gender ratio of the human occupants, from the bacterial diversity of the sample.

Albert Barbarán, a researcher and lead author on the study from CU-Boulder, said “One of the key takeaways is that if you want to change what you breathe inside your house, you would either have to move very far away or change the people and the pets you live with.”

These findings are suggested to have future implications in forensics and allergen research.

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Dr David Kirk
Dr David Kirk is a science communicator and researcher with biotech start-up CHAIN Biotechnology Ltd in Nottingham, UK. He works on the microbial engineering of Clostridia for high-value chiral chemical synthesis. He completed his PhD in 2015 on bacterial spore formation at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He plays badminton (poorly) and maintains a blog on science news and synthetic biology: http://sciencejerk.blogspot.com. His views are his own. Twitter: @DrDaveKirk Blog: https://sciencejerk.blogspot.com/ Paper.li: https://paper.li/DKirkSciJrk/1421931606 Research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Kirk6

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