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You probably don’t consider your navel to be the most spectacular part of your body.
A group of researchers at North Carolina State University, however, believe that your very own belly button may be a biological frontier worth exploring.
That is why Jiri Hulcr and his colleagues in Raleigh, N.C., launched the Belly Button Biodiversity Project and have swabbed around 500 navels since February. The project is part of a broader initiative to better understand the bacteria that live on human skin.
On their website the researchers explain why the bellybutton is a good place to begin: “Because no one volunteers when we ask for armpit samples. Because our belly buttons are relatively isolated, a place where microbes are safe. Because everybody has one, it’s what once connected us to our past. Yet, we barely notice it in our daily lives, to the point that few people actually wash theirs. Which is great for the bacteria! They are well protected, and provide a refuge of our wild nature. We can ask many questions about the microbes on our bodies (what controls which live where, whether the species on men and women are different, whether innies and outies sport different fancies, etc…) but a first step is to simply see who is there, the way the first explorers, upon arriving at new continents, simply wrote home to describe what they found.”
The Audacious Swab
While it may seem pretty audacious to compare swabbing belly buttons to discovering new continents, the researchers also posit that we know more about the creatures that live in Australia than we do about the ones in our own navels.
Another reason the belly button is a good place to learn more about natural skin bacteria is that the “belly button doesn’t produce any special secretions or oils, such as other protected body parts, such as the nose or armpit,” Hulcr told MSNBC. “So the microflora inside the belly button is fairly representative of the rest of the body.”
After submitting information about their age, sex, whether they have an “innie” or an “outie,” where they grew up and their ethnicity, volunteers have a sample taken from their navels with a sterile swab. The scientists then place the swabs in a vial and allow the bacteria samples to grow until they are big enough to be photographed. You can view the results here.
The most plentiful bacteria the researchers have found are Staphylococcus epidermidis —the most common bacteria found on skin — Micrococcus luteus and Pseudomonas. Also found in the bellybuttons of the volunteers are molds and fungi, but less yeast — which is commonly found on skin — than the researchers anticipated.