We’ve been learning a whole lot about the human microbiome in the past year. As you probably know, the microbiome is essentially a tiny ecosystem that exists inside each of us, and surrounds us in the air we breathe, and on the surface of our skin and hair. So, we not only embody a microbiome of diverse microscopic life (bacteria, pheromones, etc), but we also exude a unique biological signature, a living footprint, so to speak, as we move around.
Scientists have demonstrated in a new study released this year that this externalization of our individual microbiome can create a biological signature that can actually be read in the aftermath of a crime, to help identify a suspect. Internally, a suspect’s location history and movements can be traced through analysis of the bacterium and other macrobiotic life that they’ve picked up while on the move. Everywhere you go, you’re constantly picking up biological traces of your surroundings, and leaving your own biological traces behind–even if you’re not touching anything. The simple fact of your passing through is enough to leave traces in the air!
This mutual relationship between one person’s microbiome and those of other people is a fascinating area of research at this time in science. We’ve learned that multiple micro biomes form reciprocal relationships, and become complimentary to each other when they share the same space. So, couples who cohabitate end up with much the same microdiversity inside and out. You share immunity to diseases, and you’re also much more likely to share an infection if one of you picks up the pathogen.
The same is true in communal spaces, such as offices. Through air transmission, microbiomes exchange elements and evolve together, meaning that you share much more than coffee with your coworkers.
And in a fascinating new development, we’ve now learned through analysis of microbial impact on diet and metabolism that your gut diversity is also significantly influenced by those around you. If one person’s microbiome is rich in gut probiotics, their roommates or partner will be too.
The bad news is, our conventional approaches to controlling the spread of microbial life and bacterial germs is deeply flawed. No matter how much you wash your hands and sanitize your surfaces, your microbiome is still interacting constantly with those of people around you. So, we will always be more susceptible to disease when in large communal spaces. The good news over the long term is that this increased interaction should in theory produce greater immunity. Of course, that depends on the company you keep! As the diet researchers discovered, people who surround themselves with folks who eat a very healthy, diverse diet that promotes gut diversity also end up with increased probiotic life in their tract. Sadly, the converse is true as well.
In the end, it seems that even on the smallest of scales, we truly are in this together: much more so than we’ve ever seen before.