Microbiome Monday: Microbial Fingerprinting

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Welcome to another Microbiome Monday! The Museum’s new special exhibition The Secret World Inside You is now open, and we're bringing you weekly primers on the human microbiome and the research surrounding it from Curators Rob DeSalle and Susan Perkins, as well as from other scientists who are working in this exciting field.

This week, we look at the work of Dr. Jack Gilbert, a microbiome researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, discusses his work exploring the potential for microbiome signatures to be used as forensic tools. Dr. Gilbert discussed his work earlier this month as part of the Museum's SciCafe series. 

While there are certain microbes that are common to most people, every individual’s microbiome is unique. That means that some day, forensic scientists could use the microbial traces we leave behind to identify criminals. It may seem like the stuff of CSI, but according to Dr. Gilbert, the technique could see use sooner than you think. 

Fingerprint

Forensic investigators could one day use microbial signatures in much the same way as fingerprints.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Gilbert and his colleagues are working with the Department of Justice to identify whether “microbiome fingerprints” have the potential to be used as trace evidence in court cases. To test the potential, the research team worked with police officer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to stage a phony robbery.

The “robbers”—graduate students of a professor involved in the study—entered a home and put on their best faux robbery, removing items like iPads, laptops, and a TV, and even stopping to grab a drink from the refrigerator. After the bogus burglary was over, researchers entered in sterile gear and took samples of the microbes in the house. By analyzing these samples, Gilbert and his team were able to pick out a pair of signatures that didn’t belong.

“Even though these were very limited interactions, they left behind identifiable traces,” says Gilbert.

More than that, they were also able to identify surprising things about the signatures, like that one of the participants in the burglary took migraine medication, which Gilbert says “changes the microbiome in a predictable way.”

Pills

Some medications can influence microbial signatures, helping to identify their sources.

Courtesy of e-Magine Art on Flickr


Just as a pair of gloves can foil fingerprinting, there are ways to avoid leaving a microbial signature at the scene of a crime—they are just more bulky. To prevent microbial fingerprints from lingering, criminals would have to trade their traditional ski masks for full Hazmat suits, a conspicuous solution if there ever was one.