Sunday, July 10, 2011

Your belly button is one of the last biological frontiers

When I do think about belly buttons, which is surprisingly often with a toddler in the house, I usually just smile at the memory of how my son's belly button started as the umbilical cord that nourished him for nearly nine months. This week I learned about a research study called the Belly Button Biodiversity Project. The skin is still not a well studied organism; one set of researchers is working to change this by focusing on the tiny belly button, calling it "one of the last biological frontiers."

Biologists and science communicators in North Carolina are sampling across the nation for belly button bacteria. The project is as much about teaching as about learning. Many different organisms live on our skin, but most are not bad. Thus far, 662 microbes new to science have been discovered. Nearly half of the 1,400 distinct bacterial strains found have not been seen before.

Science writer Carl Zimmer (mentioned in my Bibliophile's Dilemma blog) donated a belly button swab. He blogged about discovering his microbiome, which consisted of 53 species of bacteria. Among the more exotic are one species previously only found in the ocean and another only found in living soil in Japan. Zimmer has never been to Japan.

I'm fascinated and would happily volunteer a to give a sample. However, despite knowing that the organisms are benign and often beneficial, I will be scrubbing my belly button a bit more carefully.

Click here to learn more about the Belly Button Biodiversity Project. For the baby/toddler set, my son recommends Where is Baby's Belly Button?


  1. Come on, it could be a fun contest to not scrub it and see if you can have the most bacteria ever!

    If you do find out how to donate let us know. I glanced at the site, but didn't find any means of joining up.

  2. Coral: Put that way, the no scrub approach might be an adventure...I think. :)

    I sent them an email asking how to provide a sample. I'll post a follow-up if I hear anything.