Navel gazing at NC State leads to important discovery

July 12, 2011
By Chris Saunders
Courtesy of Belly Button Biodiversity project.

Courtesy of Belly Button Biodiversity project.

NC State researchers recently discovered more than 600 new strains of bacteria on our body. And all of it is living in one place — your belly button.

The Belly Button Biodiversity project, which began in February, is one of the Dunn Lab’s projects that aim to raise awareness about the role microbiology plays in our everyday lives.

“The whole project is about translating science into a language that everybody understands and can relate to,” says Jiri Hulcr, NC State research associate and project leader.

Though Hulcr says his research team could have used the forearm or any piece of human skin to house their tests, the belly button offered a unique landscape because it’s very well-protected and, Hulcr says, few people wash theirs regularly.

Hulcr says there are two main groups of organisms in the belly button’s general vicinity. There are things like fats, proteins and dry skin, which he calls the “residents.” Then there are the “tourists,” or the bacteria.

“Tourists are what forms the bulk of the diversity,” Hulcr says. His team found 1,400 strands that were identified in 95 percent of the study’s subjects. There were 662 strains of bacteria that were not documented, which leads Hulcr to conclude they are new.

The project is a venture between the Dunn Lab, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the University of Colorado Boulder. Hulcr’s team took samples from random volunteers at science education events and conferences.

It has garnered national attention over the last four months with mentions on blogs belonging to MSNBC, New York Times and Discover Magazine. The project has also been featured on Public Radio International and the BBC.

The team continues to plan for more research that Hulcr says could lead to more findings about disease and genetics.

The research will still focus on the belly button, whose “exotic landscape” offers the best reason not to pass it up.  “There are multiple reasons,” Hulcr says. “The most important one is that it’s almost exciting that everybody has an intimate relationship with theirs.”

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