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Microbial Air Print

May 24, 2013

So here I am at Wiscon reporting on the latest news from the American Society for Microbiology meeting. At ASM, there is always something even more outrageous than science fiction.

The human microbiome–from skin and GI tract to our respiratory passages–is now considered a part of the human body. But how unique and distinctive is it? One admittedly preliminary experiment compared the microbial populations sampled from a room in which different people had breathed for four hours. It turned out that just the presence of one person in a room completely defined the room’s airborne microbiome–its air print, if you will. In fact, the air print could identify which person had occupied the room.

Human microbes perform “ecological services” for their hosts. Even well known  bad guys like Helicobacter pylori may actually do more to prevent cancer and inflammation than they do causing gastritis–especially in younger people.  And the dog licking the kids helps equilibrate the family microbiome.

Microbial forensics was another subject. It turns out you can learn more about the state of a corpse by the ecological succession of microbes in the decaying flesh.

And more distant microbes, inhabiting marine invertebrates, form complex associations that consume toxic minerals. A worm with two sulfur bacterial symbionts feeds on carbon monoxide–released not by car exhaust but by decaying plants.

Carbon monoxide eating definitely sounds like something an ultraphyte might do. What else do you think alien microbes should be doing?

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