Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Navel-Gazing In The Name Of Science

Image credit: Belly Button Diversity
Navel gazing has apparently gained some legitimacy in the scientific community, as a group of scientists has begun cataloging bacteria from volunteers' belly buttons in an effort known as the Belly Button Biodiversity Project.

The project began when the team collected bacterial samples from 60 volunteers, handing out swabs at a conference and to visitors in a museum. Lurking within those 60 belly buttons were 2,368 different bacterial species, many of which have never been encountered by scientists before. Some of the results were bizarre- one science writer had a bacterial freeloader that has only ever been found in Japanese soil, although he had never been to Japan- and others somewhat unsettling, such as the volunteer carrying extremophile bacteria typically only found in ice caps and thermal vents.

The team is now expanding its efforts to collect swabs from hundreds of belly buttons to test the bacterial makeup of their volunteers' navels and look for correlations among the samples. Although no single species was found in every sample, a handful of species were overrepresented within the original 60 samples. Eight species in particular were found on over 70% of the subjects, and they tended to dominate the overall bacterial composition of the sample in which they were present. One enthusiastic researcher described our belly buttons as being "a lot like rainforests", where certain species always dominate the rainforest flora.

Microbes have been gaining popularity as scientists are beginning to realize the importance of the relationship between humans and our native bacterial populations. Not only do microbes cover virtually every exposed inch of our skin and orifices, but the type and variety of bacteria found on our bodies, as well as the proportions in which they are present, appears to be linked to our health and well being. Now, the Belly Button Diversity Project team has joined the increasingly widespread effort to tease apart the nature and intricacies of the relationship between us and our microscopic inhabitants. For something so tiny, these critters have thus far had a huge influence on the trajectory of science, health, and medicine.

Read the full National Geographic Article here.

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