Last January, at the Science Online conference, I noticed that there was a research group collecting swabs taken from the bellybuttons of scientists, science bloggers, and science journalists. That culture above? It's made from the bellybutton of Anton Zuiker, one of the organizers of that conference.
Beyond personalized petri dishes, what is the point of all this? Turns out, the goal is to learn more about the bacteria that lives on us. Some of the data from analyzing all those bellybutton samples is starting to come back, and it's turning up some interesting facts about the tiny ecological niches on our tummys.
About 18 months ago, researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Dunn, a North Carolina State University professor, came up with an idea to explore the ecology and evolution of daily life and wanted to find a spot on the body that could provide an understanding of the natural skin microbiome. They needed a place that was infrequently disturbed, avoided the scrubbing of daily wash and was common to all humans. There was no better choice than the bellybutton. Dunn and his clan of navel gazers then invited people from two conferences, 60 in total, to swab their bellybuttons and provide him with the samples, which he took back to his lab and cultured. The next several months were spent not only growing the bacteria, but also typing them to identify the species.
The first set of data is in review, but the results suggest that the bellybutton offers far more to our understanding of life and our journey through it. From these 60 people, Dr. Dunn identified close to 1,400 species of bacteria. From these, a number were predictable, such as the ever-prominent Staphylococcus epidermidis and the corynebacteria, both of which give off that "eau de germs" scent when we don't wash frequently. But others, such as those found on volunteer Carl Zimmer, were completely unexpected, such as species that are found only in the ocean or the soil or in faraway lands.
...The navel bacteria were related to where the person has lived over the course of their lifetime. The tiny anatomical vestibule was actually a museum of lifetime experiences.
Read the rest of this story by microbiologist Jason Tetro at Huffington Post.
Learn more about the Bellybutton Biodiversity Project
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.