How Many Bacteria Species Can Coexist on a Single Hand? (And do girls really have cooties?)

Sounds like a riddle, but it’s not trivial. We’ll get back to that in a minute. First consider the scenario: The class arrives from physical education. Today’s activity was mat ball, a variation of dodge ball involving lots of kids and lots of contact with balls and mats. They’re pumped, a little sweaty and out of breath, and one or two are a few seconds late—probably not because they were washing their hands! Would you have students wash their hands in this scenario? Not likely. It’s just not part of the lesson plan.

We accept a certain lack of sanitation mostly because it’s not feasible to allow 26-30 kids to wash their hands several times a day. We try to take solace in the hand sanitizers, though rumor has it there’s no substitute for warm water, soap and a minute of scrubbing.

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped. Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU. Wikimedia Commons.

So what’s the big deal? Most bacteria on our skin are harmless or beneficial, right? How many could there be anyway? Well, recently published a story, Women lead men in bacteria types, hands down  that might surprise you. Researchers were surprised to find the incredible number of different bacteria species found among 51 college students’ hands and the very low number of species shared by all students. Further, there was a difference between left and right hands. And finally, there was a significant difference between men and women.

According to the news article,

They [researchers] identified 4,742 species of bacteria overall, only five of which were on every hand . . . The average hand harboured 150 species of bacteria. Not only did individuals have few types of bacteria in common, the left and right hands of the same individual shared only about 17 per cent of the same bacteria types . . .

Researchers suspect differences between left-and right-hand bacteria diversity have to do with each hand’s interactions with environment that can alter the hand’s conditions in terms of oil or salinity, for example. Differences between men and women might have to do with hormone production or slight variations in pH. Researchers commented that, for the subjects involved in this study, hand washing did not appear to remove the bacteria. It is important to note the study did not measure mass of bacteria present or population sizes for each species, only the diversity of species present.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The National Science Education Standards Content Standard F states:

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of

  • Personal health
  • Populations, resources, and environments
  • Natural hazards
  • Risks and benefits
  • Science and technology in society

The ideas in this news article connect to the bullets above. The following discussion highlights the ideas in the list.

Ask students if they’ve ever had a bacterial infection. What caused it? What are bacteria? Many will state they are harmful, disease causing germs. How common do they believe bacteria are? Are they in contact with any right now? How do they protect themselves against bacterial disease? Lead students to understand that many kinds of bacteria are harmless and, in fact, beneficial. Our digestion is aided by bacteria, for example. Bacteria are used in the production of yogurt and cottage cheese, among other foods. You can show them photomicrographs indicating bacteria are distinct cells, but quite small. Bacteria impact our personal health in both positive and negative ways.

How are bacteria connected to populations, resources and environments? Remind students that a group of the same kind of bacteria living in the same area is a population. Can a human hand be an adequate environment with resources to support a bacteria population? How many kinds of bacteria do you think might be able to coexist on a single human hand? Entertain all students’ guesses. Share only the numbers from the story with them. How do their guesses compare with the numbers reported?

Try some true or false questions:

1. There is no difference in the kinds of bacteria found on the same person’s right and left hand.

2. Men and women have the same kinds of bacteria on their hands.

3. Among a group of people, there is a high number of different kinds of bacteria that all people share.

Share the rest of the findings reported in the article. Ask students to generate inferences to account for the variation reported. What questions can they generate related to the findings? What kind of tests do they think would be good to conduct next and why?

You can connect the idea of natural hazards to changes in bacteria populations if you care to. After a flood for example, the biggest threat is disease due to polluted water, from overflow of sewage mixing with drinking-water supplies. At times like these, the bacteria populations found on flood-ravaged persons’ hands can be expected to differ from those found under normal conditions.

What are the risks and benefits involved in controlling bacteria through various methods: sanitation, sterilization, irradiation, and antibiotics, for example? What are the risks and benefits of using helpful bacteria to control or minimize the occurrence of harmful bacteria in food?

What role does technology play in public health policies regarding available vaccinations, medicines, and public education campaigns? See the Centers for Disease Control webpage for additional ideas and information at

To find lessons and activities that would support this topic of study, please search the MSP2 Educational Digital Library – Terms such as germs or bacteria will get you started.

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This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published November 10, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 2/29/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.