We have just passed through the 2011 peak flu season according to Google flu trends as well as the Center for Disease Control. This reminded me that washing your hands is one of the simplest things anyone can do to stop the spread of disease. It’s also one of those things that most people don’t do as often as they should. I thought it would be interesting to test some common surfaces around an office for bacteria. Even better would be to test some spots at abc13 – the host of our Imagine It segments. What do you think would have the highest bacterial count – the toilet seat or the microwave start button?

To be honest, I’m not a microbiologist – I’m a Physicist, but I was pretty confident that I could mix up a batch of nutrient auger (a growing medium for bacteria) and collect samples from some typical locations. And that is just what I did – swabbing phones, keyboards, toilet seats (gross), door knobs, microwave oven touch-panels (even more gross) as well as the “clicker” that the meteorologist’s use during newscasts was sampled. All the samples were allowed to incubate for about a week or so back at the science center to see what might grow. “Things” did grow from the samples but to be fair, I think I would have gotten similar results at any office or home setting. Microbes are all around us, seeing what grew just drives home the importance of regularly washing your hands.

After a week of growing some funky looking bacteria and fungus in our petri dishes, I talked with a micro-biologist from Lourdes College in Sylvania to better understand what I was looking at. I had hoped that a visual inspection of the “growing goo” might allow me to identify exactly what I had grown. Apparently it’s not quite that simple. Visually, it would be easy to see the difference between a mold (fungi) or bacterial growth, but beyond that, a more detailed testing would be required. Nonetheless, one thing was clear, we are surrounded by microbes. Some beneficial and others that are not quite so helpful.

In fact, the human body contains more bacterial cells than human cells. That is a mind-boggling fact! Of course not all bacteria is “bad” especially if you like things like cheese or yogurt or even sour-dough breads that require the action of microbes. In fact, these tiny organisms play a essential part in the human digestive tract as well.

My take away from this experiment is pretty simple. Wash your hands. Wash your hands often. How many of you eat your lunch at your desk after touching your computer keyboard or phone? Do you wash your hands before you eat that microwaved lunch – after you touch the control panel? Of course the obvious one, wash your hands after using the restroom – many people amazingly don’t!

How to do this experiment at home

One very cool thing I learned after talking with the microbiologist was that anyone can replicate this experiment at home, or in a classroom, with just a loaf of bread! Pick up a loaf of the cheapest white bread you can find. This is the crazy part, you just use a slice of bread like a swabbing device. I mean just wipe the bottom of your shoe with a slice, or wipe down a toilet seat with a slice, or wipe a door knob with a slice, sneeze on a slice (pretty gross, but kinda cool) whatever you want to sample – just use a slice of bread. Then stick the slice in a ziplock baggie and keep it in a warm dark place for a week or so. The most important thing to remember is to NEVER, EVER OPEN THE BAGGIE after sealing it up. You have no idea what kinds of things you might be growing. It’s OK to look and observe, just remember there could be some nasty things growing in there so DON’T OPEN THE BAGGIE!

You will see some mold growing (wispy looking fibers) as well as some bacterium (more shiny looking blobs) after about a week or so. If you give this a try, take some photos and send me an update via the comments below. What was the grossest thing that grew on your bread? I want to know! I will post your photos so others can see. So go ahead and Grow it, Shoot it and Send it to me!