Humans carry their own personal microbiome that’s almost as unique as fingerprints; from birth, we develop a world of bacteria, viruses and fungi that is specific only to us. These bacterial worlds form around our bodies, cell phones, and clothes — making us “microbiologically connected” to these personal items.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Oregon measured the extent to which our personal microbes were linked to our cell phones. They took bacteria samples from the index fingers and thumbs from participants’ dominant hands, as well as from the touchscreens of their smartphones. The bacteria from the phones were very similar to the microbes on the owners’ fingers; 82 percent of the common bacteria on their fingers were also on their phones. Interestingly, the researchers found that women were more “microbiologically connected” to their phones than men.

“This project was a proof-of-concept to see if our favorite and most closely held possessions microbially resemble us,” James F. Meadow, a lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon, said. “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.”

Researchers identified 7,000 different types of bacteria on both people's hands and their cell phones. The most common were Streptococcus (often found in the mouth), Staphylococcus, and Corynebacterium (both of which are often found on the skin).

The team believes that being able to identify a connection between personal bacteria and phones might be useful in the future, when trying to prevent the spreading of diseases, particularly in a health care setting. They could screen people’s cell phones to identify bacteria and possible exposure to outbreaks. “Most people on the planet own mobile phones, and these devices are increasingly being utilized to gather data relevant to our personal health, behavior, and environment,” the authors wrote in the abstract. “Our results suggest that mobile phones hold untapped potential as personal microbiome sensors.”

Source: Meadow JF, Altrichter AE, Green JL. “Mobile phones carry the personal microbiome of their owners.” PeerJ. 2014.