Smartphones forge surprising relationships through the bacteria that live on their surfaces. A smartphone actually harbors thousands of types of bacteria, and according to a new study, these bacteria could provide a window into what kinds of microbes live on the skin and in a person’s immediate body environment.
In a survey which involved 17 people, researchers collected samples from the participants’ index fingers and thumbs as well as from their smartphone touch-screens and revealed over 7,000 distinct types of bacteria present in all the samples. Among those revealed by the study, the most common types were Streptococcus, a bacteria commonly present in people’s mouths, as well as Staphylococcus and Corynebacterium that are typically present on the skin. The microbes found on the smartphones were a close match to those on the participants’ fingers; with 82 percent of them also being found on their phones.
According to James Meadow, a scientist in the study who is also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, each of the people surveyed had more bacteria in common with their own smartphone than with any other participant’s.
With such findings, the researchers wrote in the June 24 issue of the PeerJ journal that people share more than just an emotional connection with their smartphones because the phones carry a person’s specific “microbiome,” which refers to the microbe collection on personal items. Meadow adds that though this particular study was not aimed at specifically finding out if the bacteria were pathogenic, one should not worry over the bacteria found on his or her smart phone because most of the bacteria on people’s bodies and in their immediate environments appear to be harmless according to other scientific literature. Smartphones forge surprising relationships through the bacteria that has become of great interest to researchers.
The research also revealed that the smartphones contain more than just bacteria present on fingers; they may also carry bacteria picked up in a person’s surroundings or even from contact with surfaces and other people. However, these do not necessarily integrate into the personal microbiome, and further research is required to fully understand what impact these bacteria have on health.
A significant finding of this study is that in the future, it may be possible to use smartphones or other personal items as a way of monitoring what bacteria people get exposed to in their environments. This could, for instance, be used in forensic investigations to solve crimes through researching a suspect’s immediate environmental contacts. Phones could also be screened prior to or after one enters a hospital to find out if the person is bringing harmful pathogens into or out of it.
Collecting samples from people in real life requires consent because some may be uncomfortable with the idea, but swabbing of smartphones could prove a less invasive method of taking samples, thus making future research into microbiomes easier.
This study was small and did not include phones with keypads, so more research is required to further validate the results. Moreover, it remains to be established whether phones actually do reflect the kind of bacteria people come into contact with on a daily basis. Smartphones forge surprising relationships through related bacteria, and could be used to further research into human disease and infection control, the researchers concluded.
By: Rebecca Savastio