Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, lives happily on your skin, and now a company’s developed a spray of the cultured species – you mist yourself twice a day, and they consume the ammonia and other stuff that your body produces. No need for soap, no need for deodorant, no need for shampoo.
As for that latter, it’s always seemed a bit of a mystery as to why people spend so much money on sham poo when real poo is free and widely available. But setting that musing aside for the moment, you might wonder whatever would possess a company to produce spray-on bacteria in the first place, given that all of the ads in media are about soaps and cleaners and germ-killers.
Oddly, it all started with a girl and her horse.
She was dating a chemical engineer, and she asked him about something that had long intrigued her: why did her horse like to roll in the dirt? He didn’t know, but out of curiosity, he took samples of said dirt and found therein bacterial species that metabolize not carbon, but ammonia. Well, of course, horses sweat – particularly after being ridden on a warm day. And these bacteria metabolize it.
“The only way that horses could evolve this behavior was if they had substantial evolutionary benefits from it,” he told me.
And they’re off!
After growing the bacteria in the lab and dumping a solution of it on himself, he determined that he was onto something. While there’s been a great deal of attention paid in recent years to the microbiome in our guts, nobody had really paid much attention to the exterior microbiome; the ones living on our skin. In fact, over the course of the past century, we’ve been energetically attempting to exterminate it without ever considering that many of these bacteria we’re enthusiastically removing might actually be beneficial.
That’s beginning to change, as one person testing the product discovered:
My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna’s worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink. As I took my morning “shower” — a three-minute rinse in a bathroom devoid of hygiene products — I remembered all the antibiotics I took as a teenager to quell my acne. How funny it would be if adding bacteria were the answer all along.
Dr. Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the role of microbiota in wound healing and inflammatory skin disease, said she believed that discoveries about the second genome might one day not only revolutionize treatments for acne but also — as AOBiome and its biotech peers hope — help us diagnose and cure disease, heal severe lesions and more. Those with wounds that fail to respond to antibiotics could receive a probiotic cocktail adapted to fight the specific strain of infecting bacteria. Body odor could be altered to repel insects and thereby fight malaria and dengue fever. And eczema and other chronic inflammatory disorders could be ameliorated.
Of course, there could well be downsides: the companies that produce these high-end soaps and other cleaners could lose a lot of business. And the manufacturers of insect repellents could take a big hit. Grocers, drugstores, and sporting-goods stores might have to find other stuff to peddle. Economic effects would ripple throughout the country, as media find ad buys hawking soaps and other products drying up. Indeed, the term “soap opera” could be endangered, and “microbiome opera” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.