A million years ago, when Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, I scraped a bit of beer money teaching an undergraduate survey course in human pathology, as one of those pilot fish of academia who ekes out a living on the scraps of behemoths (and by behemoths, I mean, people with tenure). If you are teaching a science class to a group of young, bored, anxious undergrads, many of whom have not had terrific experiences in science classes and for whom the idea of having to take one is actively upsetting, you had better have a couple of ice-breakers up your sleeve – a schtick, in a word. Out of a desire to both amuse and instruct, I used to open by distributing Xeroxes (which ought to tell you how long ago this was) of a little critter known as Demodex folliculorum, better known as the eyelash mite. A tiny and inoffensive creature, D. folliculorum as the name implies inhabits the hair follicles in human eyelashes (six or more to a follicle, apparently) and it spends its entire life – which is about a half a month – head down, subsisting on the meager nutrients to be found in sebaceous secretions.
They are found virtually universally on human faces – they have no other host – which means that they are going about their business on my visage as I type and, dear reader, almost undoubtedly doing so on yours as you read. They are born, mate, live, and die without most of us ever knowing they exist. They don’t even live long enough to need an anus at the far end of their extremely rudimentary digestive system, which if you find the idea of their existence troubling is probably a mercy. And, if they have any thoughts at all, head down in the darkness, they will forever remain obscure to their hosts, by which I mean, you and me. Perhaps they are doing philosophy.
If you have gotten this far, you are probably wondering why I bring this up. Well, kind reader, it turns out that if you wear a watch on a regular basis, it too is not immune from the reality that the human epidermis is a veritable microbial metropolis. While it’s not as richly colonized as the colon, estimates are that there are some 1,000,000,000,000 or so microbes (lots of them in the navel, which is waggishly described as a “moist microbiome” by one study) on your skin and mine, representing perhaps a thousand species and 19 phyla (those numbers used to be lower but have been oonched up in recent years by new methods of RNA analysis). In the course of settling into a slightly slow watch news cycle (August by tradition in Switzerland is the so-called “watchmaker’s holiday”), I have discovered that periodically folks get curious about whether or not a watch, which is in contact with the skin on a daily basis and typically does not join the owner in their daily ablutions, might play host to its own population of invisible creepy-crawlies. It seems it would, indeed must, be the case.
And lo, as we have speculated, so it has come to pass. One of several experiments to take a stab at the issue was a partnership between NBC affiliate WPTV down in Boca Raton, Florida, who – also apparently struggling to fill the hours – went to the good folks at the Department Of Biological Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, and specifically, to Dr. Dieuto Esiobu (Ph.D. and human microbiome researcher) who swabbed 20 or so watches, made from various materials, from things like Fitbits all the way up to, apparently, a Gold Watch Not Otherwise Specified. What did the good doctor find? Well, just as with human skin, there were a wide range of different bacilli present including a couple which are potentially pathogenic, including strains of E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. The doctor’s take?
“There are some very good ones and there are some very nasty ones,” she says (one imagines, in the same slow, clear voice that parents use to explain to children that matches aren’t playthings and that a knife, mishandled, may cause injury).
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for the true horological enthusiast, whose heart beats not for the lowly interloper that is the fitness tracker or smartwatch. Of the 20 watches tested, which one showed no trace of infestation? A gold watch – gold, as it turns out, has antimicrobial properties, providing you with just the rationale you need to explain to your long-suffering Significant Other why you just had to buy that yellow gold 36mm Day-Date. (I’m kidding, I hasten to add. I tried it, and the attempt closed opening night to resoundingly negative reviews.)
Perhaps the takeaway from all this is that we can approach our perspectives on the unseen world of microorganisms with a certain measured respect for their ubiquity and indeed, the benefits they offer. The vast majority of the bacteria living on and in us are not only not harmful, but often helpful in many respects and often actually help repress more actively pathogenic organisms. The presence of these microbes speaks to the inescapable reality of the coexistence of innumerable and wonderful webs of life, whose beauty, delicacy, and intricacy sustain all creatures great and small.
Although, you know, maybe wash your watch once in a while; you wouldn’t wear the same pair of boxers all month would you? (If you would, thank you in advance for not mentioning it in the comments). As the good Dr. Esiobu says, “Wipe it off, it won’t hurt.”