Seems like Robert Dunn and his colleagues are finding some use for navel gazing. Their study has discovered that the bacterial pattern in human belly buttons are quite unique to each person, giving them snowflake or rainforest-like qualities.
This story begins about two years ago. One undergraduate wanted to sample the bacteria in a colleague's belly button to send it in a holiday card. The idea inspired the team at the North Carolina State University, which was attempting to expand the public's focus in science. They thought that belly buttons would be ridiculous enough to appeal to the general public. Not only that, but since the belly button is very rarely thoroughly scrubbed, it offers perhaps the last frontier to assess the microbial landscape on the human body.
The first study, published in PLoS One, is the result of the swabbing of 60 intrigued, maybe disgusted, volunteers' belly buttons. Inside these belly buttons, the scientists found 2,368 bacterial species. As many as 1,458 of them may be newly discovered to science.
Some belly buttons had as few as 29 species and others had as many as 107, though the average belly button had about 67. Interestingly, only eight species appeared in 70 percent of subjects - and when they did, they were prevalent. The researchers compared that finding to rainforests which may contain different flora but largely have the same tree types. However, 92 percent of bacteria types also appeared in fewer than 10 percent of subjects. As a matter of fact, the majority of bacteria appeared in only one subject.
The findings were bizarre and surprising. One subject's belly button revealed bacteria that had previously only been found in Japanese soil - although he had never been to Japan. Another subject, who had not washed in two years, had two species of bacteria that are found in thermal vents and ice caps.
Researchers still want to discover why these bacteria are there, so Dunn and his team are expanding their study to at least 600 navels. They are also expanding their research to armpits. Their studies - and others - can help shed light on the relationship between microbes and their human hosts.
For more information, visit the team's website.