We are truly each our own galaxy, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford. Albeit, a rather dirty galaxy.
In orbit around each of us is a cloud of microscopic particles, chemicals and microorganisms that's swirling around us and never leaves our side. This invisible swarm is known as the exposome, and your exposome is unique to you. Now researchers are beginning to dive into these strange, idiosyncratic universes — and what they're finding is remarkable.
"People have measured things like air pollution on a broad scale, but no one has really measured biological and chemical exposures at a personal level," said geneticist Michael Snyder from Stanford. "No one really knows how vast the human exposome is or what kinds of things are in there."
Snyder continued: "It turns out, even at very close distances, we have very different exposure profiles or 'signatures.' The bottom line is that we all have our own microbiome cloud that we're schlepping around and spewing out."
Your unique cloud
If you're a germaphobe, you're probably thinking you need a shower right about now. But, it turns out, while your cloud's unique profile might shift slightly when you wash or alter your environment, it's still surprisingly consistent, and there's really no escaping it.
For the study, Snyder and his team equipped a team of volunteers with small air-monitoring devices that constantly inhaled the air in their immediate vicinity. Some volunteers wore the devices for a week, but others wore them for months or even years. With every suck of air, the devices collected particle signatures, DNA and RNA of countless bacteria, viruses, chemicals, fungi and other particulates. Each cloud had their "stuff" catalogued, leading to an immense amount of data collected; numbers of readouts were in the billions.
While everyone's specific profile is unique, Snyder's team did find some consistencies too. Eerily, DEET, an insect repellant, was found in just about every chemical sample, along with a number of carcinogens. All of the study's volunteers resided in the San Francisco Bay Area, however, so it's unclear how these readings might be different with more diverse samples.
What's in your personal orbit?
The results of the experiment are still largely being analyzed, but it's already clear that the world in orbit within inches of our skin has a huge amount to say about our health and well-being. Researchers acknowledged that this is only the beginning of what might soon become a new era in health, one that takes into account a view of our bodies as extended out into the environment in profound and unexpected ways.
"We want to measure more people in more diverse environments," Snyder said. "We also want to simplify the technology, ideally to the point that everyone can be out there measuring their own personal exposures —perhaps something like an exposome-detecting smartwatch."
And, perhaps, that's an idea that even the world's germaphobes and clean freaks can get behind.