What Molecules You Leave on Your Phone Reveal About Your Lifestyle

“We leave behind trace chemicals, molecules and microbes on every object we touch. By sampling the molecules on cell phones, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences were able to construct lifestyle sketches for each phone’s owner, including diet, preferred hygiene products, health status and locations visited. This proof-of-concept study, published November 14 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have a number of applications, including criminal profiling, airport screening, medication adherence monitoring, clinical trial participant stratification and environmental exposure studies.

“You can imagine a scenario where a crime scene investigator comes across a personal object — like a phone, pen or key — without fingerprints or DNA, or with prints or DNA not found in the database. They would have nothing to go on to determine who that belongs to,” said senior author Pieter Dorrestein, PhD, professor in UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “So we thought — what if we take advantage of left-behind skin chemistry to tell us what kind of lifestyle this person has?”

In a 2015 study , Dorrestein’s team constructed 3D models to illustrate the molecules and microbes found at hundreds of locations on the bodies of two healthy adult volunteers. Despite a three-day moratorium on personal hygiene products before the samples were collected, the researchers were surprised to find that the most abundant molecular features in the skin swabs still came from hygiene and beauty products, such as sunscreen.

“All of these chemical traces on our bodies can transfer to objects,” Dorrestein said. “So we realized we could probably come up with a profile of a person’s lifestyle based on chemistries we can detect on objects they frequently use.”

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