Every pore on your face is a walled garden

Every pore on your face is a walled garden

Your skin is home to a thousand types of bacteria, and the ways in which they contribute to healthy skin is still largely a mystery. This puzzle could get even more complex: In an article published Thursday in Cell Host & Microbe magazine, researchers studying the many varieties of Cutibacterium acnes bacteria on 16 human volunteers found that each pore was a world of its own. Each pore contained only one species of C. acnes.

C. acnes occurs naturally and is the most common bacterium on the skin. Your connection with acne, the skin disease, is not clear, said Tami Lieberman, professor at MIT and author of the new paper. Understanding whether different strains of C. acnes have their own talents or niches, and how the strains distribute themselves on your skin is an important step in understanding the relationship between the inhabitants of your face and its health.

To collect their samples, Dr. Lieberman and her colleagues used commercially available nasal strips and old-fashionedly squeezed with a tool called a comedo extractor. Then they smeared samples, each a bit like a microscopic glacier core, out of the pores on Petri dishes. They did the same with samples of toothpicks that were rubbed across the surface of the participants’ foreheads, cheeks, and backs, which picked up the bacteria on the surface of the skin rather than in the pores. They let the bacteria grow and then sequenced their DNA to identify them.

Each person’s skin had a unique combination of strains, but what surprised the researchers most was that each pore was home to a single variety of C. acnes. The pores were also different from their neighbors – for example, there was no clear pattern connecting the pores on the left cheek or forehead across the volunteers.

In addition, the bacteria in each pore were essentially identical according to the sequencing data.

“There is tremendous variety in one square inch of your face,” said Arolyn Conwill, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author on the study. “But there is a lack of diversity in one of your pores.”

What scientists believe is that each pore contains offspring of a single individual. Pores are deep, narrow crevices with oil secreting glands on the bottom, said Dr. Lieberman. If a C. acnes cell manages to get there, it can multiply until it fills the pore with copies of itself.

This would also explain why strains that don’t grow very quickly manage not to be overtaken by faster strains from the same person. They don’t compete with each other; they live side by side in their own walled gardens.

Interestingly, these gardens are not very old, say the scientists. They estimate that the founding cells only settled in the examined pores about a year earlier.

What happened to the bacteria that lived there before? The researchers don’t know – maybe they were destroyed by the immune system, a virus fell victim or were simply torn out of a nasal strip, paving the way for new founders.

Dr. Lieberman said the finding has implications for microbiome research in a broader sense. For example, a simple swab from a person’s skin would never hint at the complexity uncovered in this study. And as scientists consider the possibility of manipulating our microbiome to treat disease, the patterns uncovered in this study imply the need for information about the location and arrangement of microbes, not just their identity. In the future, should doctors hope to replace a person’s current skin dwellers with others, they may need to cleanse their pores first.

And could it be that another resident on our faces plays a role in how the bacteria come and go in each pore?

“We have mites on our faces that live in pores and eat bacteria,” said Dr. Lieberman. What role do they play in this ecosystem in terms of maintaining C. acnes gardens, has yet to be determined.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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