Do Gut Microbes Travel From Person to Person?

By Veronique Greenwood | May 1, 2012 11:04 am


It’s an exciting time for ecologists who study microbes. DNA sequencing has grown so cheap and fast that they can run around identifying bacteria living just about anywhere they can reach with a cotton swab. Turns out, bacteria are everywhere, even in the cleanest houses, and scientists are starting to wonder: do those bacteria in the home reflect the bacteria that live inside the inhabitants?

And if so, can they travel from person to person?

A small insight into this question came at one of the presentations at the International Human Microbiome Congress (covered by New Scientist in a short piece here). James Scott, who studies molecular genetics at the University of Toronto, reported that the gut microbes of babies, as found in their poop, were also in the dust in the babies’ homes. It’s not clear whether this means that bacteria in the dust are colonizing the babies or vice versa—or both—but it’s still something of a surprise. Gut microbes don’t seem like the sort to thrive outside the body, as they tend to require an oxygen-free environment. But maybe the gut bacteria in the dust are in a dormant form, waiting to be absorbed into a new gut before flowering into life again.

The corollary of this finding is that perhaps the other inhabitants of that home might pick up those microbes. Your gut microbiome, thus, would be closer to your roommates’ than to a stranger’s, something that would be easy to test with modern sequencing techniques. There’s also room to speculate that as we learn more about the microbiome’s relationship to disease, the swapping of microbes within a household could reveal an infectious component to illnesses that we don’t currently think of that way. It’s just a speculation now, but an interesting one.

A whole rash of projects like Scott’s baby study, most yet unpublished, are starting to give scientists a sense of the interplay between our personal microbiomes and those of our homes. Many of these projects require the help of generous citizens like yourselves who submit samples from their homes for analysis, in fact: Here are a couple to start with, if you’re curious.

Before you know it, you’ll be swabbing everything in sight—just like the pros.

Image courtesy of juhan sonin / flickr


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Craig Gosling

    I thought it had been established that babies have their mothers bacteria and acquire more as they grow. Many animals including apes munch on their own and other species fecal material. Some marsupial pouch openings are situated near their anuses for easy access for their young. Calves could not digest without bacteria that digest milk and cellulose. I ingest digestive bacteria from time to time to insure good digestion, especially after taking antibiotics or being exposed to someone who has.

  • Karl A. Bettelheim

    Researches carried out in the 1970′ by my colleagues and myself have shown conclusively that bacteria can spread from baby to baby via the air and the persons handling them. While the spread of ‘normal’ E.coli appeared limited, when a pathogenic strain entered the ward its spread was far more extensive. It is a pity that the writers of this article did not look at these earlier studies and for their information I have written below references to the main papers on the topic and more papers are referred to in these references.
    1. Bettelheim, K.A., Teoh-Chan, C.H., Chandler, M.E., O’Farrell, S.M., Rahamin, L., Shaw, E.J. & Shooter, R.A. 1974 Spread of Escherichia coli colonizing new-born babies and their mothers. Journal of Hygiene, Cambridge 73:383-387.
    2. Bettelheim, K.A. & Lennox-King, S.M.J. 1976 The acquisition of Escherichia coli by newborn babies. Infection 4:174-179.
    3. Bettelheim, K.A., Drabu, Y., O’Farrell, S., Shaw, E.J., Tabaqchali, S. & Shooter, R.A. 1983 Relationship of an epidemic strain of Escherichia coli 0125.H21 to other serotypes of E.coli during an outbreak situation in a neonatal ward. Zentralblatt für Bakteriologie Mikrobiologie und Hygiene, I. Abteilung Originale A 253:509-514.


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