Swabbing your nooks and crannies for science

navel gazingI learned about this one through a tweet announcing that “[well-respected science writer] Carl Zimmer has weird belly button fluff.”

Don’t we all? I thought. But the story was a good one: the belly button microbiome is now being studied, and Zimmer has some unusual species in his. The project comes from the lab of Rob Dunn; you may recall that Dunn and Zimmer were two of the three authors whose books I mini-reviewed last week.1

Dunn’s area is the ecology of species surrounding people, including but not limited to microbes, and the idea behind the belly button project was to find an area of skin that should be roughly comparable between people, and not washed too often. Preliminary results, reported by Jason “Germ Guy” Tetro, suggest that we accumulate belly-button bacteria from all the places we have lived, making it “a museum of lifetime experiences.”

My belly button pops inside-out when I’m pregnant. Have I just washed off all my lifetime experiences?

This is where you come in

Cotton SwabsSixty volunteers had their navels swabbed and cultured for the project, which is now listed as “sampling complete,” but if you missed out, don’t worry – the next phase of research is about to begin: Armpit-pa-looza.

Dunn has plenty to say about armpit stink and why it’s valuable to humans, but perhaps the most astounding is that our bodies seem to deliberately cultivate stinky bacteria there (and in our crotches, sorry, genitoanal region) – feeding the critters with secretions from our apocrine sweat glands, and providing a hairy trellis for the resulting bacterial garden.

If armpits aren’t enough, you can also donate your poop to science – I mean, the website doesn’t mention poop, but what else could it be? – through the American Gut project. They are looking for diversity in their subjects, especially dietary diversity, which I think is an excellent question:

The government’s Human Microbiome Project effort sampled only healthy adults, mostly medical students! While it was an amazing project, did it really capture the American Gut? We are not sure, so we decided to find out. We are calling on athletes, couch potatoes, vegans, diabetics, Paleo dieters, centenarians etc – we need your help. If you have IBD, diabetes, autism or some other ailment – we need you too.

You know what to do. Go forth and swab thyself.

1 Obviously I foresaw this, rather than just choosing my library’s three least boring books on microbiology that weren’t checked out already. Expect Idan Ben-Barak to join the story in some further, bizarre way.

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