Bacterial DNA on the skin surface overrepresents the viable skin microbiome

Ellen M. Acosta, Katherine A. Little, Benjamin P. Bratton, Jaime G. Lopez, Xuming Mao, Aimee S. Payne, Mohamed Donia, Danelle Devenport, Zemer Gitai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The skin microbiome provides vital contributions to human health. However, the spatial organization and viability of its bacterial components remain unclear. Here, we apply culturing, imaging, and molecular approaches to human and mouse skin samples, and find that the skin surface is colonized by fewer viable bacteria than predicted by bacterial DNA levels. Instead, viable skin-associated bacteria are predominantly located in hair follicles and other cutaneous invaginations. Furthermore, we show that the skin microbiome has a uniquely low fraction of viable bacteria compared to other human microbiome sites, indicating that most bacterial DNA on the skin surface is not associated with viable cells Additionally, a small number of bacterial families dominate each skin site and traditional sequencing methods overestimate both the richness and diversity of the skin microbiome. Finally, we performed an in vivo skin microbiome perturbation-recovery study using human volunteers. Bacterial 16S rRNA gene sequencing revealed that, while the skin microbiome is remarkably stable even in the wake of aggressive perturbation, repopulation of the skin surface is driven by the underlying viable population. Our findings help explain the dynamics of skin microbiome perturbation as bacterial DNA on the skin surface can be transiently perturbed but is replenished by a stable underlying viable population. These results address multiple outstanding questions in skin microbiome biology with significant implications for future efforts to study and manipulate it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberRP87192
StatePublished - Jun 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Neuroscience


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