Friday, March 24, 2017

What Molecules Make Up Your Lifestyle Fingerprint?

When I ask the question in the title, am I talking about the "fingerprint" that is used in criminal prosecution proceedings?  The distinct ridges and grooves on the tips of your fingers?  No.  I am actually talking about a much more subtler "fingerprint" (to use the term indirectly).  A signature that is unique to you and only you.  By now, you are probably wondering what I am talking about.  In the paragraphs below, I will explain another distinct aspect of yourself that you leave on everything that you touch.  Enjoy!

Lifestyle Fingerprint?

Recently, I was reading an article on a website "Laboratory Manager" titled "What Molecules You Leave on Your Phone Reveal About Your Lifestyle" which highlighted research published back in November of 2016 regarding the analysis of chemicals on the cell phone of volunteers.  Whenever humans touch a surface, inevitably, chemicals are left behind.  The chemicals and microbes which are left behind are patterned based on the ridges and grooves of your finger tips -- i.e., finger prints:

We leave behind trace chemicals, molecules, and microbes on every object we touch. By sampling the molecules on cell phones, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences were able to construct lifestyle sketches for each phone’s owner, including diet, preferred hygiene products, health status, and locations visited. This proof-of-concept study, published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have a number of applications, including criminal profiling, airport screening, medication adherence monitoring, clinical trial participant stratification, and environmental exposure studies.
“You can imagine a scenario where a crime scene investigator comes across a personal object — like a phone, pen or key — without fingerprints or DNA, or with prints or DNA not found in the database. They would have nothing to go on to determine who that belongs to,” said senior author Pieter Dorrestein, PhD, professor in UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “So we thought — what if we take advantage of left-behind skin chemistry to tell us what kind of lifestyle this person has?”

The research highlighted in the article mentioned above goes beyond just the finger print -- which is old technology.  Of course, even old technologies can be improved upon and will be discussed in a later post.  The finger print that the researchers are studying is based on the chemicals which are left behind after touching a surface of an object (cellphone, iPad, table top, refrigerator handle, etc.).  These chemicals are unique to each person, similar to a finger print.

Although, the information contained in the 'lifestyle finger print' are much more informative that just personal identification.  Chemical analysis of the residue on cell phones in a study revealed the types of products (sunscreen, bug spray, oils, cosmetics, sweat, etc.) which in turn shed light onto the lifestyle of the volunteer:

With this information, the researchers developed a personalized lifestyle “read-out” from each phone. Some of the medications they detected on phones included anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal skin creams, hair loss treatments, anti-depressants and eye drops. Food molecules included citrus, caffeine, herbs and spices. Sunscreen ingredients and DEET mosquito repellant were detected on phones even months after they had last been used by the phone owners, suggesting these objects can provide long-term composite lifestyle sketches.

“By analyzing the molecules they’ve left behind on their phones, we could tell if a person is likely female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression, wears sunscreen and bug spray — and therefore likely spends a lot of time outdoors — all kinds of things,” said first author Amina Bouslimani, PhD, an assistant project scientist in Dorrestein’s lab. “This is the kind of information that could help an investigator narrow down the search for an object’s owner.”

Sounds interesting right?  Or does the science research sound creepy?   Regardless, the analysis of microbes and chemical residues is becoming increasingly attractive.   The biological and chemical fluid released from the body (either through sweat pores, urine, fecal, etc.) are becoming increasingly attractive for science researchers interested in the microbiome (i.e., microbiota, microbes, etc.).  Each of us have an untold number of healthy and unhealthy microbes living inside and on the outside of our body.  One large interesting area of research is centered around analyzing the distribution of microbes in your system in order to try to link a given microbial population with a healthy body.

Since not all human volunteers are comfortable giving a fecal sample, or being swabbed endlessly, the least invasive manner in which to analyze the microbiome along with personal chemistry is by swabbing devices (i.e., wallets, cellphones, iPads, PC, etc.).  Although, the least invasive can prove to be the most difficult to analyze.   Why?

In order to attain a complete profile of a healthy fingerprint lifestyle, a library of compounds needs to be stored onto a computer which is connected to the instrument used to analyze the chemical residue.  The above researchers use a 'mass spectrometer' to analyze the chemical residues along with the microbial residues taken from the volunteer's devices.

Basically, upon making a suitable sample to inject into a 'mass spectrometer' the sample is blown to pieces into fragments which are characteristic of the chemicals original composition.  The fragments are analyzed against a library of known compounds (whose fragments have been documented).  To get a complete picture of a 'lifestyle fingerprint' -- a complete library must be inserted into the system to compare a given sample to.  Which means that every household product would have to be catalogued along with all cosmetic products.  Virtually, any product with which a person might come into contact that can leave a residue would have to be catalogued in order to form a complete 'lifestyle fingerprint.'  At the current time, this is impossible to say the least.

Do people have to worry about their 'lifestyle fingerprints' being collected anytime soon?

The answer to the above question is uncertain.  Probably not anytime soon.


Given the complexity associated with forming a complete picture (a complete library of all products which humans interact with), the chances are small.  Although, with further research into the idea, the library will inevitably grow toward completion.  As far as the microbial fingerprint research is concerned with, the research is advancing much more quickly.  In a 2010 study, researchers from the University of California at San Diego linked a person's computer keyboard to them using the population of microbes left on the keyboard exclusively.  The level of precision was not yet to the standard to use in crime scene investigations.  Still, the level of precision is a stepping stone in the roadmap toward using the microbiome in the future to identify a person.

Currently, the greatest implications of such research lies in the area of medicine:

Beyond forensics, Dorrestein and Bouslimani imagine trace molecular read-outs could also be used in medical and environmental studies. For example, perhaps one day physicians could assess how well a patient is sticking with a medication regimen by monitoring metabolites on his or her skin. Similarly, patients participating in a clinical trial could be divided into subgroups based on how they metabolize the medication under investigation, as revealed by skin metabolites — then the medication could be given only to those patients who can metabolize it appropriately. Skin molecule read-outs might also provide useful information about a person’s exposure to environmental pollutants and chemical hazards, such as in a high-risk workplace or a community living near a potential pollution source.

Advances in treatment would be great for the world.  Patient accounts are unreliable and the medical community needs another level of monitoring to ensure that patients are keeping up with the treatment prescribed.  Additionally, the ability to monitor workplace or community exposure of hazardous chemicals or environmental pollutants would further our ability to assess the toxicity of chemical compounds.  Which would have a beneficial effect on environmental and chemical regulation at the state and federal level in policy making.

Science research is crucial toward making our world a safer place.  In the research described above, there are numerous applications which would enhance our lives.  There are a tremendous amount of unknowns which exist in our daily lives which we have no clue as to tackle or to inquire about.  Research inspires us to ask questions which were unknowable just a short time ago (a decade ago).  Which is why each of us should be inspired by such work to wonder more about the world around us and how we interact with it or in it.

Until next time, have a great day!

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