Belly button bacteria, in full bloom


These petri dishes are growing bacteria harvested from the belly buttons of scientists, journalists, and bloggers at the 2011 ScienceOnline Conference. It's all part of Belly Button Biodiversity, a project of researchers from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Their goal: Introduce humans to the wildlife that's growing on us and in us. Their next sampling event—aka, your chance to see what's growing in your belly button—is February 12, at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.


  1. Of course there _should_ be critters growing on our skin. There’s some evidence that over-sanitization encourages autoimmune ailments.

  2. Now try sub-culturing those with a tiny percentage of soap in the agar. I’ll bet next to nothing grows.

    (“but you fool! those bacteria are our *friends* — “just look at them!”)

  3. Belly belly button you’re so fine
    Oooh belly button I’m so happy you’re mine
    A tummy without you just wouldn’t be right
    Oooh belly button you’re a beautiful sight
    Belly, belly button–yeah!

    /reads way too many simplistic bedtime books to little kids

  4. I’m 50 years old.

    Back in the 1970s, because of acne as a teenager, I was sent to a dermatologist who prescribed antibiotics. (I guess this was common at the time; I’m not sure if dermatologists still do this)

    He also told me that “diet had nothing to do with acne.” So I took the antibiotics. I wonder if my intestinal flora is permanently screwed up because of it. I’ve eaten yogurt, but I don’t think that’s enough to restore the correct balance.

    I wonder if my ability to absorb/utilize certain vitamins has been permanently affected by that useless antibiotic treatment.

    By the way, my skin cleared up after I reduced the amount of processed meat in my diet, replacing it with more grains and vegetables and non-processed meat.

    1. I took antibiotics for acne in the early 90s.
      My guts are just fine.

      If you’ve got belly problems they likely aren’t from taking anitbiotics 40 years ago

  5. It’s an admirable goal to help people realize the true world they live in, and that our bodies themselves are swimming with biodiversity.

    But I can’t help think this exhibit will mostly encourage people to go at their bellybuttons with wire brushes.

    Maybe they need to work on breaking the very strong association with “things growing in petri dishes” and “evil gross bacteria” first. I know that there’s happy things growing in there and this thing still squicked me out.

  6. Very cool! And all it takes is a basic agar medium… I wonder if I can convince my mom (a bacteriologist) to grow a sample from my belly button – I’d like to have the photo hanging on my wall!

  7. That’s pretty cool, although it focuses on the (relatively small) fraction of bacteria that can be cultured.

    Far more interesting is to use metagenomics to get a broader view of human commensal / mutualist bacteria.

  8. No names for the living creatures pictured here. They look nice and all but I like to know the names.

  9. As a current graduate student who is studying host-associated bacterial communities, I can say I’m always super excited when this kind of stuff gets out to the public. And sorry to all you germaphobes out there, but there are at least ten times as many bacterial cells than your own human cells living in and on you, and you can’t live without ’em.

  10. I used to play with agar and petri dishes as a kid, it’s why I knew to make sure to wash hands after pooping but peeing, eh, don’t worry about it.

    1. Darn, I didn’t tell it right.

      Question: What does belly button bacteria do all day?
      Answer: Stare at your navel.

      There, that’s much better.

    1. Shave your belly, and you won’t get the fluff any more. Worked a treat for me :)
      My girlfriend (a microbiologist) did the same bacterial test with a ‘clean’ fingernail, with equally horrifying results.

Comments are closed.