Hey You, Get Off My Microbial Cloud!

Have you ever wanted to commit murder? Most of us don’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t fantasize about it. Most of us don’t have anyone in mind, and we don’t think about it to the point of gauging the ramifications. We just think about how exciting it might be to test our skills against the most brilliant minds of the criminal justice system to see if our attention to detail could match theirs. We would love to see if we could get away with it, just to do it. If we believe what scientists at the University of Oregon, and microbiologists at Argonne National Laboratory suggest might be on the horizon in the science of criminal investigations, you might want to stop procrastinating, and just do it, because getting away with murder could become a lot more complex in the next ten-to-twenty-years.

Getting away with murder is such a common phrase that it doesn’t really mean anything to Americans any more. We toss the phrase around in such a cavalier manner that it confuses foreigners, learning the language and the American culture. They don’t understand how anyone could equate getting away with using a TPC form to complete a CPT request, could be equated to getting away with killing another person. They know that no one in the company is supposed to use this form for a CPT request, they know the dire consequences that await those who do, and they understand that the perpetrator in question didn’t experience any of the proscribed consequences after doing it, but they don’t understand how that is, in anyway, similar to getting away with murder. 

The cavalier use of such phrases may speak to the inability of most to express themselves, or the need we have to exaggerate everything for the purpose of illustrating how strong we feel about a matter. Whatever the case is, we use the phrase getting away with murder, because we deem it one of the most difficult things to do. Even in the days of Sherlock Holmes, when law enforcement officials had little more than their wit, elevated observation skills, the ability to read people, and all of the experience and training that honed those natural attributes, we deemed getting away with murder so difficult that few, if any, could escape a thorough investigation unscathed.

With the first conviction in 1987, by way of DNA evidence, the degree to which science was used in crime scene investigation grew by leaps and bounds. Some have said that jump was a generation-defining leap. Since that point, the FBI has compiled DNA records on more than five million convicted offenders, and around 240 convictions have been overturned because of DNA evidence. In most cases, law enforcement officials are now able to use science to narrow the field of suspects of an investigation with the assistance of DNA evidence. They are able to use it to apprehend suspects, and to build a strong enough case for conviction, as DNA evidence is now recognized by courts and juries alike as a tangible form of evidence. If we are to believe Christopher Cobble’s article for Findlaw Blotter, we’re about to take another huge leap forward with something called a microbial cloud.

Research scientists, and microbiologists, state that they have found that a cloud of bacteria surrounds every living being. This cloud is something they call “microbial miasma”. It is similar, in nature, to the cloud of filth that surrounds the character Pig Pen of the Peanuts comic strip. The cloud that surrounds us every minute of every day is a sort of haze of our microbiome that we emit, comprised of viruses, fungi, yeast, cells, cell parts filth, every piece of bacteria that lives on or around the skin, every piece of skin you shed, and every little, otherwise discreet fart that happened to come from you.

Have you ever encountered a person who had a body odor so strong that you swore you could taste it? Have you ever said something along the lines of, “I know this sounds foolish, but I swear his funk is still crawling on me!” The findings of these microbiologists, and research scientists, suggest that this thought may not have been as far-fetched as once thought.

The BBC summarizes these findings by writing, “When you approach another person’s microbial cloud, their bacteria “rains” down on your skin and is breathed into your lungs.”

Those of us who have a lifelong aversion to close talkers have found it difficult to express our discomfort, for we consider a violation of a norm to break that two-step invisible bubble we all have. It’s a custom of Americans, and some may even call it social protocol, to ask another for some space, but we understand that other cultures have other rules of space. This confusion makes it difficult for us to ask for more space in this regard, but this idea of a microbial cloud might be our saving grace.

“Could you back up a step?” we can now say. “You’re getting your microbial cloud all up in me.”

Reading the various studies of this new information on the net, leads this reader to believe that such hip jargon may not be too far off the mark, for even the customary distance of two-steps may involve the speaker’s microbial miasma going up your nose, in your ears and mouth, and through your immune system. Those of us who have an aversion to close talkers can now state with confidence that a close talker might exacerbate normal bacterial intrusion levels.

This research also gives credence, unfortunately, to the idea germophobes have feared for a generation that they will contract airborne diseases through the simple act of talking to people.

These researchers suggest that the bacteria located in microbial clouds are not just indigenous to every living thing, but they’re also individualistic in their own right. They have their own DNA.

“Researchers ran two trials with participants sitting in sterilized rooms and working on computers while air filters and trays on the ground detected and collected bacterial particles. According to Wired, “[T]he two trials showed that, at least in these 11 people, microbial clouds varied significantly from person to person. They also found that different people shed microbes at different rates.” This means we all have our own, personalized bio-dome following us around, but the DNA is so individualistic that science can now ID it.”

“We expected that we would be able to detect the human microbiome in the air around a person,” a James Meadow of the University of Oregon, said in a news release from the journal PeerJ, “but we were surprised to find that we could identify most of the occupants just by sampling their microbial cloud.”

Those of us who adored the brilliant 70’s television show Columbo, now watch it with a slight cringe and a quaint smile, as we watch the trench coat investigator solve “perfect crimes” by paying an inordinate amount of attention to the details that the average person would’ve missed. “Getting away with murder” back then involved a perpetrator wearing a pair of gloves, paying careful attention to their footprints, and wiping down door handles, lamp switches and telephones to cover any trace of evidence they may have left behind. We also watch the show’s perpetrators attend to the various circumstantial details that might account for the murderer’s whereabouts at the time of the murder, and the warmth of the body that might confuse the coroner’s time of death, and all of the other details that were difficult, but not impossible, to cover up. Those of us in the age of DNA, now watch Columbo with that quaint smile, knowing that if the trench coat investigator had access to the modern technology we have today, most of the “perfect crimes” it appeared that Columbo was the one man to solve, could now be solved by a forensics intern.

The generational differences may not be that stark, and some law enforcement officials will argue that science will probably never replace the basic investigatory tactics, such as knocking on doors, interviewing witnesses, and all of the tactics that Columbo used to solve crimes. The science, as I am sure every law enforcement official would admit, is a nice supplement to help close a case and gain a conviction, but it will never replace the hard work done to solve a murder. I am sure they would also admit that the advent of DNA into criminal investigations, and the depiction of it on shows like C.S.I., might discourage some from indulging in their sick and twisted fantasies with the belief that it’s harder to get away with than ever.

Getting away with murder has never been easy, but with the advent of DNA, and the understanding of it on a level that it could assist law enforcement, as depicted in numerous shows, such as C.S.I., leads those with a lust for blood to dress themselves, and the location of their crime in plastic, in the manner the Dexter would in that Showtime series. How will future assailants account for their microbial cloud? Will we view Dexter and C.S.I., one day, with the same cringes and quaint smiles we now view Columbo?

Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at Argonne National Laboratory, has been working with crime scene investigators on how to use microbial residue to track down criminals. Mr. Gilbert believes that in the future, we might us microbial clouds, like DNA, to assist law enforcement officials in the future.

“Mr. Gilbert notes that our microbial clouds are not only particular to us, they are particular to where we’ve been, as we add microbes from the surrounding air, soil, and water to our personal Petri dishes. Therefore, an individual’s unique microbial signature could either confirm their alibi or place them at the scene of a crime.

“Solving crime with bacterial vapors remains in its infancy,” writes Christopher Coble. “As with DNA evidence, collection is one thing, but having a large enough database to compare results to it is quite another. But as the technology evolves, it’s yet another reminder to be careful about what you store in the cloud.”

If this research evolves to the point that Mr. Gilbert believes it might, criminal investigations may go beyond the as of yet simple study of skin and the complex collection of DNA, to the study of the DNA of the bacteria that lives on and around the skin. Bacteria, after all, are living organisms with their own DNA signatures.

What will happen in investigations of the future, according to Cosmos Magazine, is that the forensic scientists will get a hold of the bacteria in question and study it using high resolution DNA. In the course of their study of this organism, they will seek out the bacteria’s 16S gene that they say provides their reading a DNA signature equivalent to a grocery store barcode. All bacteria have this gene, but it varies by slight differences between species.

Dexter’s plastic wrap outfit, in essence, would not prevent future forensic specialists from narrowing the field down to him. If they were able to get a hold of the germane bacteria involved, scan it, perform a census on it against the different bacteria communities available, compare it to the 16S genes in their database, and compare it to victim’s bacteria on the alleged assailant or vice versa. If that failed, the forensic team could take soil samples from the area and compare the bacteria in that soil with the bacteria at the bottom of Dexter’s shoes, for example, to build a case against him. 

As Mr. Gilbert says of light switches and door handles, Dexter could be meticulous in his effort to wipe down every inch of the sole of his shoes, so that no milligram of dirt existed on that shoe, but the microbial signature, contained in the 16S genes of bacteria of that sole would be “virtually impossible” to wipe away. Mr. Gilbert even contends that anti-bacterial sanitizers would not be wipe this away entirely.

Dexter had a habit of putting plastic around his shoes, you argue. It’s a decent argument, until we ask the question when he put that plastic on. Did he put that plastic on before he left the car? When he opened the car door, did any of the microbial dust, indigenous to the area, make its way into his car? If he didn’t put them on in the car, did he wait until moments before entering the abandoned rail car? Did he step on any incriminating microbial dust en route to the abandoned railcar? If you watch an episode of Dexter, you’ll notice that his eyes are not covered, and that leaves him susceptible to getting some of the victim’s microbial miasma is his eyes. If investigators are able to get to him quick enough and put him into a sealed chamber, to test his air samples, they might be able to find some 16S genes from the area in question, or the victim. If law enforcement was able to locate and legally confiscate the plastic wrap Dexter used they could scour the outside of the outfit for location, and then they could test the inside of the plasti-wrap to see if his microbial cloud was in it. 

The point is that if you remained calm in the face of the intense interrogations of the Porfiry Petrovichs, the Father Browns, the Sherlock Holmes, and the Columbos of their day, and you were able to weather their psychological games of misdirection and distraction, your ability to get away with murder increased. Getting away with murder  was still so difficult that it became a euphemism for getting away with the impossible, but it was still possible.

The day may never come when the idea of getting away with murder is so impossible that it’s not even worth trying, but there may come a day when a forensic specialist locates some Propionibacterium and Corynebacterium on a clover leaf, in the soil, and around a duck pond where it was alleged that you got your thrill on by killing your neighbor that had belly fat hanging so low below his shirt that you couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. There may come a day when a forensic team is able to determine that those bacteria had a 16S gene, bar code that is specific to you, and there may come a day when they are able to convince a jury of your peers that this alone is enough to have you executed for your crime.

That day is not here yet, however, so it’s not too late for those who want to use all the knowledge they’ve gained from binge watching C.S.I., in the plasti-wrapped basement we’ve told everyone is for our daughter’s third birthday. If these reports are to be believed, however, and the science achieves all that these microbiologists, and research scientists, are projecting, we may want to stop procrastinating, because the forensic science involved in criminal investigations may get so intense that it may become almost impossible for even the most brilliant and meticulous to get away with murder, and that phrase could take on a whole new meaning in the next ten-to-twenty-years.


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