How Gross Is Your Phone? A Motherboard Science Experiment
Culturing bacteria in our office mortified a couple responsible scientists.
All images: Derek Mead
All I wanted to do was recreate a relatively simple study I had just written about. Instead, I ended up creating something vaguely dangerous, which mortified the director of a local DIY biology lab. Here's what happens when you perform experiments on your coworkers.
Last month we learned that, in general, we share a biological connection with our phones. That is, the same bacteria that grow on our thumbs and index fingers are often seen on on our smartphone screens as well. Armed with what I remembered from my AP biology class from 11 years ago, a surprisingly well-illustrated and thorough WikiHow article, some agar plates I bought from a place called EZ BioResearch, and the vague blessing of a DIY microbiologist, I set out to see what kinds of gross shit was growing on my and my coworkers' smartphones and fingers.
To do it, I'd need some test subjects—I snagged phones and fingerprints from our editor-in-chief Derek Mead, our managing editor Meg Neal, and senior editors Brian Anderson and Brian Merchant. Like any eager scientist, I participated in the study, too (as you'll soon see, the results from this experiment probably won't make it into a top science journal).
The plan was to culture samples from both cell phone screens and from our thumbs and index fingers (on separate plates). With everything all labeled up and taped shut to avoid contamination and to avoid unleashing some horrible bacteria on the Vice office, I stuck the plates in a box in a cabinet over the weekend.
Once my legions of bacterial minions started growing in earnest, the plan was to take the plates to GenSpace, a DIY lab in Brooklyn, look at them under a microscope and figure out what the heck I'd grown. Afterwards, I'd determine once and for all A) whether that study I wrote about last week could be recreated without doing expensive DNA analysis and B) which of my coworkers is the grossest.
I opened the box on Tuesday and saw all sorts of microbial colonies. Awesome. I called up Ellen Jorgensen over at GenSpace to see if it'd be cool if I came by that day. It was not cool if I came by that day. She says the lab doesn't have clearance to allow people to bring in outside cultures.
"So you're telling me you swabbed people's phones and put them on plates and grew up random microbes and amplified random bacteria?" she asked me. "Yeah, you're not bringing them into GenSpace. It's against our rules and regulations and it's really dangerous. The people who can overhear me right now are kind of mortified at the thought."
Brian Anderson culturing his index finger while Brian Merchant looks on.
Based on the few instructions I'd seen on the internet and the reviews for the agar plates I'd bought, I was under the impression that culturing bacteria from random things around the house was a good way to teach kids about microbiology.
Instead, Jorgensen suggested that I had probably grown strep and staph and other things that could make us very sick. What's more, humans only know how to properly culture about 5 percent of bacteria, so the plates wouldn't have everything that was on our phones and hands, just some of it.
Daniel Grushkin, who cofounded GenSpace with Jorgensen (and has since moved on), told me we'd be alright as long as we didn't make Staph Soup:
"If you don't lick it or touch the colonies, I imagine you should be fine. Ellen's right that there's no way of knowing what is growing in great quantity on the dishes, and that poses a risk," he said. "But it's also true that high schoolers have been doing this for years."
So, no microscope, no lab space. The show must go on.
I asked on Reddit's microbiology subreddit, whose users confirmed what I suspected—it's nigh-impossible to identify bacteria based on eyeballing their colony's appearance, but I mostly appear to have found common skin flora. Another guy on Reddit told me I was crazy, but generally, it doesn't seem like we've unwittingly brought about the bacterial apocalypse.
I also spoke to a couple microbiologists, and someone pointed me toward the American Society for Microbiology's Microbe Library, which will serve as our Official Resource for this analysis.
"I think most people probably don't realize that with microorganisms you really can't ever have any certainty of identification unless you can conduct metabolic, morphological and/or genetic investigations," Redditor edge000 told me. That's a very good point! But also, screw it, let's try anyway. It'd probably be easier to just guess at the genus, but while we're swinging for the fences, let's go for the species as well. Please take all of this analysis with a huge grain of salt—it's just for fun. Experts out there, feel free to correct and flame me for my recklessness in the comments.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the stuff I grew.
Fingers on top, phone on the bottom
Derek's fingers grew, by far, the most uniform colonies. You can see exactly where he touched the agar. Nice bacterial distribution, bro! His fingers are also home to plenty of what looks like Serratia marcescens (that's the orangish stuff, I think), a lovely bacteria that causes urinary tract infections, conjunctivitis, and, in coral, something called "white pox disease." Wikipedia also notes that the bacteria can be used to explain several "miracles" in which blood grew on bread back in medieval times. Nope, just Serratia marcescens.
The yellow stuff looks to me like Staphylococcus aureus, which is often harmless, but not always! It's also developing an antibiotic resistance and is the cause of lots of MRSA infections, food poisoning, and skin infections. On the other hand, it's quite likely Staphylococcus epidermis, which is known to live on our skin, and is generally harmless.
Derek also appears to have some fungus in the upper left corner of his sample and another bacterial colony (that big white thing on the bottom left) that, according to the microbe library, look kind of like anthrax, even if it's almost assuredly something else. Derek's phone is considerably less bacteria-y, but has colonies of what looks like Staph and Serratia species nonetheless.
Fingers top, phone bottom
No Serratia here, but it looks like we have some Staph and that same white bacterial colony that showed up in Derek's. It could potentially be Streptomyces albus, but I can't say for sure, and that colony appears to be somewhat uncommon judging by how little information there is on the internet about it. Brian's phone looks pretty clean and appears to have the same colonies. The science is working, guys.
Fingers top, phone bottom
Meg grew the same yellow stuff and potentially a tiny bit of Serratia. But, most importantly, if you look in the middle, you'll see two things. First, you'll see what looks like an awesome microbial war raging between at least four different colonies.
In the middle, you'll see that white spot, which, according to a couple people on Reddit is probably Aspergillus niger, which causes black mold on fruit and fungal ear infections in humans that can cause temporary hearing loss. As you can see, that fungus grew completely unchecked on her phone culture and has become the monstrosity you see here.
Fingers top, phone bottom
Fun fact about Brian's phone: It was sitting somewhere at an NYPD office for nearly a month and he had gotten it back just before I cultured it. That'd seem to be an excuse for why so many colonies grew off of his phone, were it not for the fact that his hands grew tons of the same thing. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it is. But it sure looks gross.
That brings me to me. My finger cultures somehow got lost in the shuffle of the photo shoot, and these biohazards have since been disposed of. I can promise you my fingers weren't overly gross, nor were they overly clean. They looked pretty similar to Brian Anderson's, which you can see from my phone's culture.
Well, there you have it. An experiment that doesn't really prove anything but was a heck of a lot of fun to do. Based on my very amateur analysis, it does appear that there's a pretty close connection between the microbes that grow on your phone and the microbes that grow on your fingers. There also seems to be a correlation between doing an experiment on your coworkers and how much they like you, but that'll probably require some additional experiments to prove.