During the first weekend of February break, I attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My press badge allowed me to rub elbows with several up-and-comers in the world of scientific research, and most of the attendees I talked to were just as inquisitive about my life as a “science writer” as I was about their lives as “scientists”.
Everything was about as professional as I’d expected it to be until the guys from Argonne National Laboratory asked for a swab of my feet.
More specifically, they handed out plastic baggies full of sample tubes and sterile q-tips, and they asked a room full of reporters to dirty them up using their shoes and cell phones.
This foot-rubbing occurred at the press briefing for the Home Microbiome Study, an effort spearheaded by Daniel Smith, a postdoc in the Computing and Environmental Life Sciences center at Argonne. Running out of the prestigious national lab in Chicago, Smith is trying to figure out how stable the colonies of micro-organisms that live on us are.
90% of your body is technically bacteria. Don’t be freaked out by the high number. Neigh, bask in the knowledge that you carry independent and thriving civilizations upon your shoulders (and toes, and eyelashes, and tongue, etc) every day.
Recently some groups like the Earth Microbiome Project have begun to examine just how many different micro-organisms live on our planet. This project intends to analyze the genomes of as many organisms as possible in order to catalogue them. The Home Microbiome Study has a smaller, but perhaps more relevant, focus.
This year, a number of families who are moving into new houses in the Chicago area will be part of a fascinating study. Smith and his colleagues will take samples to observe what kind of micro-organisms live on them currently, and they’ll then see how these colonies interact with the colonies living in the new houses.
In other words: When you turn on the same light switch every morning, are the micro-organisms living on that light switch colonizing your fingers? Or are the micro-organisms on your fingers colonizing that light switch? An interesting question, and one that’s never really been asked before. Sort of a chicken vs egg situation, in my opinion.
My feet? Covered with bacteria, as well they should be. Interestingly enough, my shoes have more in common with other people’s shoes than they do with my cell phone. The data is interesting, and presented in really pretty colors, so I’m excited to see what else the project comes out with.