Editors' ChoiceMicrobiology

The New "Fingerprint": Bacteria on Your Skin

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Science Translational Medicine  21 Apr 2010:
Vol. 2, Issue 28, pp. 28ec65
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3001166

In the popular television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, forensic scientists often rely on human DNA and fingerprints to identify perpetrators of the crime. When no clear fingerprints and no body tissues or fluids are left at the scene, however, crime-solving becomes much more difficult. According to a new study by Fierer et al., the skin-associated bacteria left behind on objects such as keyboards and computer mice are unique to each individual and hence may be applicable in forensic identification.

Using powerful gene-sequencing techniques that the group has pioneered, the researchers showed that bacterial communities on computer keyboards highly resembled those found on the fingertips of their respective owners. They also demonstrated that bacterial colonies swabbed from the skin remained stable after two weeks at room temperature. To test the utility of the skin bacterial colonies in identifying individuals, the team sampled bacteria from nine computer mice and the palms of their owners along with 270 random individuals. In all nine cases, the bacterial community on each mouse was substantially more similar to the community on the owner’s hand than to those on other hands.

The study by Fierer et al. shows that each individual harbors a personally unique and temporally stable combination of bacterial colonies on the skin. The unique microbial trail left behind can be used as a "fingerprint" for forensic identification purposes. Although the technique requires further validation, this study introduces a new application of microbiology and a potentially innovative approach to complement the existing forensic methods.

N. Fierer et al., Forensic identification using skin bacterial communities. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 6477–6481 (2010). [Abstract]

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