Small amounts of everything you touch stay on your skin.
You can't see or feel those molecules, but experts can now make a full-color, multi-dimensional map of those chemicals.
UC San Diego researcher Pieter Dorrestein, PhD, told NBC 7 that molecular mapping could one day improve your health and protect the environment.
Dorrestein, who teaches biochemistry at UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy, said he and his colleagues can take hundreds -- even thousands -- of chemical samples from surface skin or from inanimate objects.
They weigh those tiny molecules, then map the results on the surface from which they took them.
For example, when a volunteer entered their password on an ATM keypad, the researchers could tell which keys were punched, and in what order, by analyzing the amount of a molecule from the volunteer’s finger that was left on the keys.
"If you touch it once, some of those molecules will be transferred,” Dorrestein explained. ”If you touch it again somewhere else, a little bit less is transferred. So there's a potential to get some insight in terms of order.”
Dorrestein said similar molecular mapping could someday help solve crimes, by revealing what the suspect touched and the order in which those surfaces were touched, creating a kind of “road-map” of the crime scene.
Dorrestein said he and his colleagues can now map thousands of chemicals, including pollutants in the ocean.
"We'll be able to create a monitoring system to maybe tell surfers, ‘OK, maybe today is not a good day to surf in this particular region, and maybe you should go surf over there,’” he said.
3-D chemical mapping could also help doctors see and treat skin diseases in a new way.
By mapping the intensity of disease, patients might avoid painful biopsies.
Doctors could also know exactly how much medicine to prescribe, which could reduce the side-effects of those medicines.
Researchers have also taken thousands of chemical samples from the surface of a worker bee.
The molecular maps created by those samples helps them understand the changes in the worker bee's body chemistry, as it interacts with the colony's queen.
In botany, 3-D molecular mapping can help scientists learn how plants transport chemicals from old leaves to new ones, and how plants react to stress.
Dorrestein partnered on this research with Theodore Alexandrov, Ph.D., at EMBL in Germany.
Their molecular mapping technique is published today, December 21, in Nature Protocols.