Bioethics Blogs

Of Microbes, Molecules, and Maps

Bouslimani et al., PNAS

These glow-in-the-dark images may look like a 60’s rock album cover, but they’re actually a reflection of some way cool science. Here are maps showing the diversity of bacteria (left) and “acquired” molecules (right) on the skin of a healthy man. Blue indicates areas of least diversity; green/yellow, medium; and orange/red, the greatest.

To create these maps, NIH-funded researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and their colleagues swabbed the skin of a male volunteer at roughly 400 spots to sample for bacteria. Then, they swabbed the same spots again to sample for chemicals and other types of molecules, natural or synthetic, that the man’s skin acquired over the course of his daily activities. Examples of such molecules include chemicals in shampoo and grooming products, polymers shed from clothing, and proteins released when skin cells are damaged or die.

Using ribosomal RNA sequencing, mass spectroscopy, and other sophisticated laboratory techniques, the researchers then identified the bacteria and molecules contained in each sample and quantified their diversity at that specific site. The data were then analyzed and translated into the rainbow-hued topographical maps that you see above.

These and a collection of similar maps, just published in the journal PNAS [1], represent a technical advance in the effort to take distinctly different types of Big Data and visualize them in a unified format. Pieter Dorrestein, who co-authored the study with Rob Knight , Theodore Alexandrov, and colleagues, says the secret was to use a consistent spatial orientation to organize diverse categories of scientific information.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.