Despite regular washing and contact with bacteria-laden objects, our personal milieu of skin microbes remains highly stable over time, reports a metagenomics study published May 5 in Cell. The authors say this knowledge could be applied to better understand a wide range of human skin disorders through the development of prebiotic, probiotic, and microbial transplantation approaches.
Human skin is an ecosystem composed of a wide range of habitats for bacteria, fungi, and viruses. While most of these microbes are harmless or beneficial, some have been linked to skin disorders such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema. Studying the variability of microbial communities across skin sites has been key to understanding, for instance, why eczema tends to affect moist sites such as the bends of the arms and legs, while psoriasis commonly occurs on dry, exposed sites such as the elbows and knees. However, it has not been clear how microbial communities found across skin sites change over time and how these changes may affect human health.
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Temporal Stability of the Human Skin Microbiome
Biogeography and individuality shape the structural and functional composition of the human skin microbiome. To explore these factors’ contribution to skin microbial community stability, we generated metagenomic sequence data from longitudinal samples collected over months and years. Analyzing these samples using a multi-kingdom, reference-based approach, we found that despite the skin’s exposure to the external environment, its bacterial, fungal, and viral communities were largely stable over time. Site, individuality, and phylogeny were all determinants of stability. Foot sites exhibited the most variability; individuals differed in stability; and transience was a particular characteristic of eukaryotic viruses, which showed little site-specificity in colonization. Strain and single-nucleotide variant-level analysis showed that individuals maintain, rather than reacquire, prevalent microbes from the environment. Longitudinal stability of skin microbial communities generates hypotheses about colonization resistance and empowers clinical studies exploring alterations observed in disease states.