Background: Every human being carries with them a collection of microbes, a collection that is likely both unique to that person, but also dynamic as a result of significant flux with the surrounding environment. The interaction of the human microbiome (i.e., the microbes that are found directly in contact with a person in places such as the gut, mouth, and skin) and the microbiome of accessory objects (e.g., shoes, clothing, phones, jewelry) is of potential interest to both epidemiology and the developing field of microbial forensics. Therefore, the microbiome of personal accessories are of interest because they serve as both a microbial source and sink for an individual, they may provide information about the microbial exposure experienced by an individual, and they can be sampled non-invasively.
Findings: We report here a large-scale study of the microbiota found on cell phones and shoes. Cell phones serve as a potential source and sink for skin and oral microbiota, while shoes can act as sampling devices for the microbial environmental experience. Using 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we characterized the microbiota of thousands of paired sets of cell phones and shoes from individuals at sporting events, museums, and other venues around the United States.
Conclusions: We place this data in the context of previous studies and demonstrate that the microbiota of phones and shoes are different. This difference is driven largely by the presence of “environmental” taxa (taxa from groups that tend to be found in places like soil) on shoes and human-associated taxa (taxa from groups that are abundant in the human microbiome) on phones. This large dataset also contains many novel taxa, highlighting the fact that much of microbial diversity remains uncharacterized, even on commonplace objects.