Unseen Bonds: How Relationships and Daily Interactions Influence Our Microbiota
Microbes are all around us. They inhabit our bodies and are present on almost every surface we touch. Your microbiome—the collection of microbes that live in and on you—is like a fingerprint, completely unique to you.
But interestingly, researchers have revealed you also share some of your microbes with others, especially with those closest to you. Your shared microbiota lives in a symbiotic relationship. And collectively, these relationships form a larger community of humans and our microbes living together.1
What Is a Shared Microbiota?
The microorganisms in a shared microbiota come together when people have close physical contact or inhabit the same environment. For example, households may have a "family microbiome" with strains of gut bacteria shared by partners, parents, and kids. The microbiota you share with those with whom you have close contact also may impact your overall microbiome diversity and gut health.2
Human Influence Over Microbial Populations
Humans profoundly shape the microbial composition of their environments. When we transition to a new home, we don't simply adopt the microbial makeup of that space. Instead, we bring along our unique microbial profiles.3
Household surfaces, according to research, are like a blank canvas. They continually get imprinted with the microbes that reside on and within us so that essentially, we are introducing our distinct microbial communities to our homes. This understanding of our interaction with microbes adds depth to our knowledge of how these tiny communities can potentially influence human health and the dynamics of disease transmission.4
Health Implications of Household Microbes
While the presence of myriad microbes in our living spaces might seem unsettling, it's vital to understand their presence in context. Microbes labeled "potentially harmful" are not necessarily an actual threat. Typically, these microbes become problematic only for those with weakened immune systems.
Our household microbial environment largely mirrors our personal microbiome, which is, by and large, beneficial. Where the continuous exchange of microbes in a shared microbiota becomes significant for otherwise healthy household members is in a scenario such as the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.5
But contrary to what you might think, the answer to this risk is not to scrub away the household microbiota. In fact, it’s the over-reliance on antibacterial products that can unintentionally promote more resilient bacterial strains. Since most microbes in our living spaces are benign and often coexist harmoniously with us, it’s best to refrain from obsessive cleaning with antimicrobial products.6
Instead, you might consider these often helpful cohabitants as members of the family who add to the diversity of household members’ individual microbiomes, which in turn can support immune response and much more. As research continues to explore the relationship between humans and the microbial communities within our homes, we may learn more about public health7 and even how we treat disease.
Valles-Colomer, M., Blanco-Míguez, A., Manghi, P. et al. (2023). Nature 614, 125–135.
Vilchez-Vargas R, Skieceviciene J, Lehr K, et al. (2022). EBioMedicine. 2022;79:104011
Brito, I.L., Gurry, T., Zhao, S. et al. (2019). Nat Microbiol 4, 964–971.
Misic, A.M., Davis, M.F., Tyldsley, A.S. et al. (2015). Microbiome 3, 2.
Dill-McFarland, K.A., Tang, ZZ., Kemis, J.H. et al.(2019). Sci Rep 9, 703.
Meng, Y., Wu, T., Billings, R. et al. (2019). Int J Oral Sci 11, 19.
Finnicum, C.T., Beck, J.J., Dolan, C.V. et al. (2019). BMC Microbiol 19, 230.