Kitchen Sponges are the Perfect Home for Bacteria

By Anna Gibbs

Ask bacteria where they’d like to live, and they’ll answer: a kitchen sponge, please.

Sponges are microbe paradises, capable of housing 54 billion bacteria per cubic centimeter. In addition to being damp, airy, and loaded with food scraps, sponges provide an optimal physical environment for bacteria, researchers reported in Nature Chemical Biology.

Just like humans, bacteria prefer different levels of interaction with their peers. Some bacteria are more social, while others prefer solutions.

Kitchen sponges, with an array of large and small holes, not only offer an ideal number of compartments for bacteria but also provide a range of varying-sized parties that can suit more of the microbes’ needs. In experiments with a kitchen sponge, the researchers found that the resulting bacterial community was more diverse than those produced in liquid cultures, a common method of growing bacteria in a laboratory.

Fortunately, the bacteria partying in your sponge are mostly nonpathogenic. But if dangerous bacteria — like Salmonella from raw chicken — do show up, the sponge’s optimal structure will probably help them survive.

“Sponges are not really well-suited for kitchen hygiene,” says Markus Egert, a microbiologist at Furtwangen University in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, who was not involved in the study. “There’s hardly any sterile surface at home, but the kitchen sponge is probably the most densely populated item at home.”

The good news is that it’s easy to solve the problem. Brushes are a much safer alternative. And if you love your sponge, don’t use it for juices. No need to invite bad bacteria to the party.


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