What’s on Your Skin? Archaea, That’s What

Hoi-Ying Holman, Advanced Light Source, LBNL
As director of the Berkeley Synchrotron Infrared Structural Biology Imaging Program at the Advanced Light Source, Hoi-Ying Holman focuses on developing and providing research communities with new synchrotron infrared technologies for deciphering the relationship between genome and functional processes and identifying the connection between the genome and natural environments. [Courtesy Marilyn Chung, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]
To characterize microbes on human skin, researchers from Austria, including Christine Moissl-Eichinger, collaborated with Hoi-Ying Holman and other scientists at the Berkeley Synchrotron Infrared Structural Biology Imaging Program, a BER-supported infrared beamline at the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The research stemmed from a joint project between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency.

“We were checking spacecraft and their clean rooms for the presence of archaea, as they are suspected to be possible critical contaminants during space exploration,” Moissl-Eichinger said. “Certain methane-producing archaea, the so-called methanogens, could possibly survive on Mars. We did not find many signatures from methanogens, but we found loads of Thaumarchaeota, a very different type of archaea that survives with oxygen.”

This finding led to the discovery that these archaea are present on people’s skin. The infrared beamline was used to rapidly and precisely characterize samples from humans and determine the levels and types of microbes present, based on the chemical specificity of infrared spectroscopy. This analysis could then be linked back to the genomic data collected by the Austrian team. The detected archaea are probably involved in nitrogen turnover on skin and are capable of lowering skin pH, supporting the suppression of pathogens. The researchers found that because of changes in skin moisture, these microbes are most abundant in subjects younger than 12 and older than 60.

Beamline contact:
Hoi-Ying Holman
Berkeley Synchrotron Infrared Structural Biology Imaging Program
Advanced Light Source

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