Image Credit: University of Surrey

This study shows the cells that are growing on your cell. Many reports have called this "disgusting" and "horrifying" and "mind-bendingly awful." But few call it what it really is: Necessary. In order to have a strong immune system, you need to be exposed to bacteria. It allows our bodies to develop defenses and, ultimately, protect itself when a real threat comes along. Unfortunately, due to our over-sanitized society, many people are not getting the exposure that they need.

Of course, you shouldn't run out and fraternize with someone who is sick, but you shouldn't use antibacterial wipes at every chance either. Indeed, these wipes don't even really do anything for you, except cause the bacteria to become more resistant. Really, you are better just washing your hands. As the Center for Disease Control notes, "An essential part of preventing the spread of infection in the community and at home is proper hygiene. This includes handwashing and cleaning shared items and surfaces. Using soap to wash hands is more effective than using water alone because the surfactants in soap lift soil and microbes from skin, and people tend to scrub hands more thoroughly when using soap, which further removes germs. To date, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers (this does not include professionals in the healthcare setting) using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap."

But what about what we see on these cell phones? Shouldn't we all be horrified? Not quite. As the study notes, the results shouldn't cause worry: "most of the bacteria were harmless, but it just shows the invisible life that can lurk on your phones everyday."

In a series of new pictures, students at the University of Surrey tested their phones for bacteria by placing them on agar plates. These are dishes that have nutrients that are designed to encourage bacteria growth over the course of three days. The results look...somewhat less that appetizing, and they seem to build on previous analyses that reveal that cell phones are virtual playgrounds for bacteria.

Credit: University of Surrey.

Dr Simon Park, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology, said "From these results, it seems that the mobile phone doesn’t just remember telephone numbers, but also harbours a history of our personal and physical contacts such as other people, soil and other matter." And he explained the purpose of this work, "As part of a course called Practical and Biomedical Bacteriology, an undergraduate module that I run, I get the students to imprint their mobile phones onto bacteriological growth Petri dishes so that we might determine what they might carry. It’s unusual but very effective way of engaging our students with the often overlooked microbiology of everyday life [emphasis added]."

So the purpose is not to horrify or make one quake with fear. Rather it is to reveal the various organisms that are always, already there. They just go unnoticed. Park continues to clarify, "it's a way of showing [our students] directly and quite strikingly how contaminated their phones could be. But we weren't trying to shock them. It is mostly shocking until we explain that this is the reality of the world we live in."

Image credit: University of Surrey

So what kind of story do the phones tell? “You can clearly see the outline of the phone on this, but the whole plate is covered by the spreading growth of a bacterium called Bacillus mycoides. This pattern of growth is unique to this bacterium and because soil is its natural habitat, we know that this phone or its user had recently been in contact with soil." Park notes.

Some disease carrying bacteria were found, like Staphylococcus aureus. But it's nothing that you wouldn't encounter on any of the hundreds of surfaces that you encounter on a day-to-day basis. The important thing is, just wash your hands on a regular basis and keep your fingers away from your face.

If you really want to protect yourself, don't run for the antibiotics or antibacterial wipes every chance that you get. As the Center for Disease Control notes, "Antibiotics kill or inhibit the growth of susceptible bacteria. Sometimes one of the bacteria survives because it has the ability to neutralize or escape the effect of the antibiotic; that one bacterium can then multiply and replace all the bacteria that were killed off." This will ultimately make the bacteria stronger. Consequently, when you do take antibiotics, it is necessary to take all of the course. This will help ensure that there are no survivors.




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