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Who knew that roller derby players could provide us with such insight into the way in which bacteria passes from person to person! A study1 from the University of Oregon and published last month in a peer review journal, set out to examine the way in which microbes pass from one player to another during a game. Roller derby is a full contact sport, where player's shoulders often come into contact with the shoulders of other players. What's more, one of the senior authors of the study, microbiologist Jessica Green, used to play the sport, and so it seemed a good area to research microbial transference from human to human.
Before a game, team-mates were found to have a ''team signature of bacteria', sharing species of bacteria with their fellow players. The study's lead author, James Meadow, explained that before a game if a player was picked at random, 'I could tell you which team she played for just by sampling the bacteria on her upper arm.'
After a game, however, players were found to share fewer bacteria with their teammates, and more with opponents than before play started. For example it was reported that before Emerald City played Silicon Valley, two members from different teams shared about 28.2% of their bacterial communities, whereas following play, the overlap of bacteria species was at 32.7%.
More work is needed to understand what happens to team's skin microbiomes in the days and weeks following play; however this research provides some interesting insight into the transference of bacteria from person to person. Whilst the skin is the body's largest organ, and hence plays an important part in regulating microbes in the body and acting as a barrier for pathogens, little is known about the bacteria on our skin - in terms of where it comes from, why and how it varies, and how it can be transferred between us. More research into this area could provide important insight into the spreading of disease. Meadow stated 'There are certain [microbes] we all have, and certain things that are unique to individuals, but we really have no idea where we acquire these in our lifetime.' Meadow's research focuses on the way in which microbes live in the 'built environment' - including buildings, ventilation systems, and furniture. We've written before about the emergence of probiotic cleaning, and this sort of research could develop that industry further.
Interesting stuff! I will leave you meanwhile with a somewhat off-putting question from the lead researcher James Meadow; "When you ride to work on the subway and bump arms with someone is that small contact enough to share something?"
For more related reading, see: Are dogs and their bacteria good for your immune system?