Women Have More Diverse Hand Bacteria Than Men

By | November 5, 2008

womanhandshakefinal52A new University of Colorado at Boulder study indicates that not only do human hands harbor far higher numbers of bacteria species than previously believed, women have a significantly greater diversity of microbes on their palms than men.

The results have implications for better understanding human bacteria and should help establish a “healthy baseline” to detect microbial community differences on individuals that are associated with a wide variety of human diseases, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Noah Fierer, lead study author. A paper on the subject by the CU-Boulder researchers was published online Nov. 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using powerful gene sequencing techniques, the team found a typical hand in the new study had roughly 150 different species of bacteria living on it, said Fierer of CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. While the researchers detected and identified more than 4,700 different bacteria species across 102 human hands in the study, only five species were shared among all 51 participants.

“The sheer number of bacteria species detected on the hands of the study participants was a big surprise, and so was the greater diversity of bacteria we found on the hands of women,” said Fierer. The study also showed that the diversity of bacteria on individual hands was not significantly affected by regular hand washing, he said.

The 332,000 gene sequences obtained by the CU team were nearly 100 times greater than those obtained from other studies of skin bacteria also obtained by sampling the entire DNA of microbe communities, known as “metagenomics.” The new CU-Boulder study also confirms that standard skin culturing of human skin bacteria, a technique used by many labs, dramatically underestimates the full extent of microbial diversity, Fierer said. …

The richness of bacteria types on the palm was three times higher than that found on the forearm and elbow, according to the researchers. The total diversity of hand bacteria appears to match or exceed levels of bacteria colonizing other parts of the body, including the esophagus, the mouth and lower intestine, Fierer said.

“I view humans as ‘continents’ of microscopic ecological zones with the kind of diversity comparable to deep oceans or tropical jungles,” Fierer said. “Today we have the ability to answer large-scale questions about these complex microbial communities and their implications for human health that we weren’t even asking six months or a year ago.” – scidaily

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