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December 14, 2011
New Mysterious Species of Microbes Are Invading Our Belly Buttons

We know that species live under our beds or in our backyards. But how many living organisms are on a square centimeter of your skin? What do they do, and how they differ from those of your neighbor? Very little is known about the life that breathes all over us. Each person's microbial jungle is so rich, colorful, and dynamic that in all likelihood your body hosts species that no scientist has ever studied. Your navel may well be one of the last biological frontiers.

A group of biologists and science communicators from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences want to know what lives on us. But this project is as much about teaching as it is about learning. They imagine germs as bad, and yet most are not. Most are either good or simply present, whether in between your toes or up your nose. The diversity on our bodies is, like any biological diversity, fascinating and full of awe and they want to share the joy of discovering it, one body part at a time. Those who give samples will be able to meet their personal ecosystems in color! With time the researchers will not only grow the microbes off of your body parts, but they will sequence them, to know the easy to cultivate species and also all the rest. The life on us knows no celebrity, or rather it knows them as well as it knows the rest of us.

After the belly button bacteria are collected on a Q-tip. Researchers analyze their DNA to determine what species are present. They also grow those microbes that will cooperate in dishes like this one.

No one knows what many of the bacteria found in bellybuttons eat and many species cannot be cultured in a laboratory. As a result, the microbes grown in dishes like this one above do not represent all of a belly button's inhabitants.

The following link is a diagram summarizing similarities between people’s belly button microflora. The closer you are to somebody, the more similar are the bacteria in your belly buttons. We have identified the whole communities by reading DNA signatures of all bacteria in each of the first samples, using next-generation 454 sequencing technology.

Interested in viewing the diversity and abundance of individual samples? Click here to see the list of bacteria species from each of the first 60 samples.

From the first 92 samples, researches counted 1,400 species, but the actual count is probably much higher, they say.

Of the 1,400 species, about 600 or so don't match up in obvious ways to known species, meaning they are either new to science or not well known, according to Rob Dunn, an associate professor in the North Carolina State University biology department, and the belly button principal investigator.

So far, belly button investigators have found many, many species, but a substantial number of these are very common among the people who submit samples.

The microbes living in our belly buttons and elsewhere on our skin play an important role in keeping us healthy, scientists are finding.

The project has received more than 400 samples so far, and has been overwhelmed by potential microbe donors

As the project continues, researchers believe they could find thousands of additional species inhabiting belly buttons.



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