What your “personal bacterial cloud” says about you

September 28, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Are you grateful your eyesight isn’t better? Are you delighted you can’t more easily see the millions of hungry microscopic beasts that are right now feasting on all the oils, bits of hair, awesome snowdrifts of dead skin cells you so generously left behind last night, all over your bed sheets and pillowcase?

What about the mites? The clusters of voracious nits living right there, in your eyelashes, in your fingernails, at the root of every hair follicle on your body, nibbling away, gorging themselves on the tasty microscopic effluvia your body constantly emits? Hey, scrub all you want; they’re not budging. Because they’re essential, is why. Even good for you. Don’t you know?

Surely none of this comes as a surprise. Surely you’ve already learned that humans are veritable factories of bacteria, to the tune of roughly 100 trillion active microorganisms in your personal microbiome, mostly in your gut and on your skin, but also, well, pretty much everywhere.

You have so much bacterial goodness, in fact, you just can’t contain it all; it’s pouring off of you, all the time, a walking, talking fountain of dead skin, hair, spit and food and bits of cloth, a microbe bomb that never stops exploding. You know, just the way nature intended.

Like this, only smaller

Like this, only smaller

And now, a fresh revelation. Not only are you flaking away (and regenerating yourself) at a simply staggering rate, but science is learning that some of that airborne effluvia, AKA your “personal bacterial cloud,” actually lingers in the room behind you, well after you’ve gone.

What’s more, the study suggests we’re probably not far from developing technology that can actually read this unique “bacterial signature,” and, well, track you down. For questioning. Or maybe dating.

No need to panic. It’s already happening. We’re already there. Nothing you can do but sit there, in your feisty personal bubble of gasses and microbes, and gape at this next-level forensics stuff, just more sci-fi made real, like a snippet from one of those insufferable “CSI”-like procedurals where they track down the killer using a special infrared laser electron microscope to analyze a single toothbrush bristle. Or whatever.

But why stop there? Mere personal ID and criminal forensics are just the tip of the microbial iceberg. Your bacterial cloud could, theoretically, reveal all kinds of secrets: What you eat, what meds you take, sexual predilections, how kind you are to animals, who you’ve slept with in the past month, you name it.

Adultery, illicit habits, recreational drugs? Easy. Into hardcore botany, Great Danes and masochistic Latin American women? Sure. The fact that you drive a rusty 2004 Corolla, own four cats, wear Hello Kitty underwear and have a thing for sniffing Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs? Now you’re talking. Hate sports, love tequila, adore French bondage fetish porn? Yes indeed. Shrimp cocktail, a gay prostitute and three vodka/oxycodone Martinis for lunch yesterday, senator? Gotcha.

Even your political orientation should be a snap to discern (lint from free-trade coffee filter = liberal; flecks of acidic bile and NRA off-gasses = GOP). Did you know that somewhere between 80-90% of all paper currency in circulation in the U.S. contains traces of cocaine? Just thought I’d throw that in. Science!

It won’t be long now. Personal “microbiome readers” could very well be the Next Big Thing. Given the speed of our tech and the rapaciousness of our social media appetites, it’s not difficult to imagine, say, the iPhone 8 having built-in microbe-analyzing sensors that instantly scan the air around you, evaluating all suspicious flecks, offensive residues or tantalizing microbial plumes. Why not?

To hell with Instagram and the weather app. “Siri, who’s got the most virile bacterial cloud in this room right now? And what’s his phone number?” Ding.

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Mark Morford

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