Your Personal Cloud of Germs

Oct 09, 2015

Every human body is surrounded by an invisible cloud of millions of microbes that is as unique as our fingerprints, new research has found. Like Pig Pen, the dusty kid from Peanuts, we carry our microbial cloud wherever we go, leaving a trace of this "signature" even after we leave a room. Streptococcus rides on our breath, for example, while the skin emits Propionbacterium, and there is even evidence that gut microbes escape into the air through our clothing. 

In the University of Oregon study, researchers asked 11 people to sit in an environmentally controlled chamber while they analyzed the air in the room. Within four hours it was possible to identify most of the volunteers simply by the unique combinations of bacteria they left behind. "In my office, when I walk across the room, I'm carrying behind me an invisible train of air," lead author James Meadow tells TheAtlantic .com. "On a microscopic level, it might look something like an 18-wheeler going down a dusty road." Some microbial clouds are more distinguishable than others, and all are subject to variables such as diet, health, and personal hygiene, which can affect how much bacteria a person sheds.

The findings could one day help identify crime suspects or enhance the understanding of how infectious diseases spread indoors. But the researchers say it will be some time before they can identify people's bacterial clouds in the more complex environment of the real world.

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