Your body is a habitat, a vast landscape housing millions of tiny living things. In that respect, you’re really no different from a grassland or a tropical cloud forest, except that you don’t have naturalists crawling all over you to check out the wildlife. Instead, there’s Rob Dunn and his Belly Button Biodiversity project.
Rob’s an ecologist at North Carolina State University with an interest in biodiversity. Much of his research focuses on ants in tropical and urban habitats, but his latest project aims to catalog the microbial life on the human body. Finding out what lives inside peoples’ navels is the first step. The latest ScienceOnline conference hosted his first collection trip.
It was a good choice. People eagerly lined up to swab their belly buttons for the project. Naturally, so did I.
But why belly buttons? There’s actually a sound rationale: Dunn’s taking samples from people who bathe regularly. And to a bunch of microbes, a soapy washcloth is something like the glaciers that once scraped the northern half of North America down to bare rock. During the Ice Age, plants and animals survived in warmer refuge communities south of the glaciers. Dunn thinks that belly buttons are likely refuges for skin microbes because people usually don’t wash them terribly well.
And so, fifteen days later, I have a photo of my belly button microbes. Alas, my results aren’t terribly exciting – very little grew on my agar plate. To be sure, this doesn’t mean that my navel is a sterile bacteria-free crater. I could be home to any number of microbes that can’t be grown on agar. Or maybe I just showered a little more thoroughly than usual before I swabbed my belly for science.
(Later events certainly proved that I had an active internal biota – I brought home a virus that knocked me flat on my back for two weeks. There’s already an impromptu analysis of the “ScienceOnline plague” in the works.)