Mobile Microbiome

Cell phones are populated with many bacteria commonly found on users’ hands. 

Jyoti Madhusoodanan
Jun 26, 2014

FLICKR, ERIK HERSMANSmartphones and other mobile devices hold a wealth of personal data, but a new study has found that they’re capable of additional storage: cell phones carry 82 percent of the most common microbial species found on their owners’ fingers, according to research published online yesterday (June 24) in PeerJ.

This “microbial fingerprint” shared between people and their phones could inform a non-invasive sampling method for large-scale microbial analyses. Researchers might also one day screen healthcare workers’ phones for possible exposure to pathogens, according to a press release.

The study confirmed that “we share more than an emotional connection with our phones - they carry our personal microbiome,” lead author James Meadow from the University of Oregon in Eugene told BBC News

Samples for the research were taken from the phones, thumbs, and index fingers of 17 participants at a workshop in Princeton, New Jersey. Sequencing revealed more than 7,000 different bacterial species. The most three commonly shared species, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Corynebacterium, are all commonly found on the skin or in the mouth. For now, there’s no evidence that phones present an infection risk greater than other personal items, such as money. “Even if you look at different areas of the skin you’ll see different types of microbes,” microbiologist Catherine Burke of the University of Technology, Sydney, told The Conversation. “So I was a little bit surprised that you would see so much similarity between what’s on your skin and what’s on your phone.”

“This project was a proof-of-concept to see if our favorite and most closely held possessions microbially resemble us,” added Meadow. “We are ultimately interested in the possibility of using personal effects as a non-invasive way to monitor our health and our contact with the surrounding environment.”