Cell Phones Reflect Our Personal Microbiome – Author Interview

Yesterday, James Meadow told us how happy he was, having chosen PeerJ to publish his previous research on skin microbiome and roller-derby. He’s back today—happier than ever—as we publish his new research on skin microbiome and cell phones!

In ‘Mobile phones carry the personal microbiome of their owners’ James and his colleagues demonstrate the microbiological connection we share with our cell phones, raising the possibility of using personal effects as a non-invasive way to monitor our health and our contact with the surrounding environment.  We went back to him so he could comment on his new research, and his second experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

– Microbial ecologist turned bioinformatics junkie

– All in for the open-access, open-science, reproducibility revolution happening in science

– Hoping my research will tell me whether or not it is OK for my kid to chew on various random things in my house

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

JM: Most people on the planet own mobile phones. We carry them with us everywhere we go, and some of us have a very close connection with them. So wouldn’t it be cool if we could actually use them to monitor our own microbiome and our microbial health? Our research started from that basic question to determine whether or not we share a personalized microbial connection with our phones that can be used to tell us something about ourselves and about our day-to-day interactions.

We found that, yes, we each have more bacteria in common with our own phones than with anyone else’s, and this opens up the possibility that we might be able to use this biological connection to understand more about the microbes that are carried around on our bodies and on our personal effects.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

JM: This was a fascinating dataset to explore, in terms of what people had on their fingers and phones. We noticed a few things that didn’t ultimately make it into the paper. For instance, we were exploring the gender differences we report in the paper, and one of the many bacterial types that explain the difference was from a genus that tends to hang out in our ears. This bug was elevated on men’s phones and fingers, but was rare in women’s samples. Our study wasn’t designed to answer whether men stick their fingers in their ears more often, but it certainly is suspicious.

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

JM: We expected that phones would resemble fingers, and we expected that there might be some sort of detectible gender difference. However, the personalized signature on phones was stronger than we expected. It’s also interesting to see that each person’s thumb and index finger only shared ~32% of bacterial types. But when the analysis was restricted to only the most abundant bacteria, the shared portion is more like 96%. So this indicates that there is lots of noise in the microbes we all carry around, but the most common bacteria tend to be the core set that we consistently carry. It will be interesting to see what the rare bacteria on our bodies and on our possessions can tell us about our day-to-day interactions.

PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

JM: There has been plenty of prior research suggesting that our phones are harboring loads of dangerous bacteria, which might be true if you work in a hospital where infectious bacteria are abundant. But it is probably not the case for most of us. I think our view of the bacteria around us is changing slowly – from wanting to kill them all to trying to learn more about what they might be doing for us. I hope this study is another way to see these trillions of bacteria on, in, and around us are actually a normal feature of being human. And we just might be able to monitor them to the benefit of our health instead of trying to get rid of them all.

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

JM: I hope this is the beginning of thinking more about how we can utilize our personal microbiome to understand more about our microbial interactions with the world around us. Our study was a proof-of-concept study that illustrates our personal microbial connection with our possessions. The next step will be trying to understand just how we can use this information. For instance, we would love to know now whether individual interactions (with other people or objects) can be detected in our personal microbiome.

PJ: Why did you choose to reproduce the complete peer-review history of your article?

JM: Why not? The more I think about this question, the more I wonder why we don’t normally do this in academia. I increasingly think this about lots of PeerJ’s radical departures from mainstream academic publishing. I think that I, as a young scientist, can learn quite a bit about what happens in peer review by reading about other scientists’ experiences. This is only the second time I’ve received signed reviews (and made them public). If this was standard, we all might be a bit nicer and less snarky in review – resulting in a more enjoyable experience for all, and making science better in the process.

PJ: This is your second publication with us. How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

JM: Stellar. We wrote this manuscript in WriteLaTeX (using the PeerJ template – also wonderful) and submitted through the PeerJ portal. I cannot express my surprise when I realized that submission really was just as easy as clicking a button! Again, why is it not this way for any other journal? How can it be that no one else has ever put effort into making manuscript submission easier?

Our final manuscript was accepted 30 days after the first draft was submitted, including a big revision following informative peer review. That was certainly a record for me. That just speaks for itself. Speed like that is unheard of in my field (and certainly in my experience).

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about your overall experience with us? Anything surprising?

JM: This is my second PeerJ publication, so although I am pleasantly surprised each time that the process is so painless, the only question I have is why in the world other journals have not caught on?

PJ: Did you get any comments from your colleagues about your publications with PeerJ?

JM: Yes. Several colleagues noticed the attention our previous paper got and have asked about our experience. And now several of them are preparing manuscripts for PeerJ based on our experience.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

JM: Hip, agile, mutualism.

PJ: Thanks for your feedback!

Join James Meadow and thousands of other satisfied PeerJ authors – send your next article to PeerJ!

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