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Quantified "selves": a smartphone tool to meet your microbes

Our bodies, our homes, our things— everything on earth is covered in a cloud of microbes, and while we are more likely to worry about pathogens, the beneficial microbes can help fight diabetes, obesity, and even save our lives (in the case of fecal transplants).

“We think that the microbes that are on our skin and in our mouth and in our gut and in our pet and in our plants and animals, they play important roles in our health,” explains UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, “and so we’d really like to get people to think about them more.”

For over 25 years the medical world has flirted with the the “hygiene hypothesis”: the idea that exposure to dirt and animals, especially when you’re young, lowers the risk of autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes, allergies and asthma. “In the last 10 years there’s been much more convincing evidence that the mechanism behind that is introducing more microbial diversity,” explains Eisen.

Eisen warns that ignoring the microbial world has also resulted in too many C-sections (vaginal births deliver beneficial microbes to the baby), too many antibiotics (he recognizes their importance to our health, but they’re often abused like when they’re delivered in animal feed) and a cavalier attitude when it comes to “spread(ing) triclosan all over your arm just because you got a little scrape” or buying a UV sterilizer (“which they’re selling on eBay”) to sterilize your bathroom.

Besides spending considerable energy trying to educate the public on the importance of these tiny bugs, he’s also using DNA sequencing to work toward building a global microbial map, a kind of field guide to microorganisms (he’s a former “birder” and his graduate work was on butterflies).

“I want to make a field guide but for the hundreds of millions of microbes that are on the planet… It’s not just sort of an esoteric exercise they’re driving the chemical cycles on the planet, they’re running carbon fixation, they’re affecting all the greenhouse gases, they’re affecting the health of all the plants, of all the agricultural systems, they affect our health, our nutrition, our metabolic rate, our resistance to infection, and it’s not that people haven’t thought about this before, but we couldn’t do it until the last few years.”

And in the last few years, we can now see our own microbes with cellphone microscopes. We picked up a MicrobeScope– a 800x microscope that attaches to an iPhone, or can be used with the naked eye. We found “bugs” all over our home, bodies, food and garden. 

Eisen hopes that this democratizing of the study of this tiny world will speed up its mapmaking, in the same way it amateurs have contributed to mapping birds and butterflies. “We want to get everyone to think about microbes and building this map of all the microbe. I would bet in 5 years and probably sooner people will be able to do the DNA sequencing at home then we can have a billion people building a global microbial map…. Most of the diversity of life are microorganisms and they’re actually really cool, but we mostly don’t look at them.”

[*All microbe footage was filmed with a MicrobeScope].