Every now and then I feel compelled to ask myself those existential questions:
- What is the meaning of life?
- Is our existence a sequence of random events or is this all meant to be?
- Are there bacteria in my belly button?
While I, like most mere mortals, continue to grapple with #1 and 2, fortunately, there is an answer to #3:
Thousands of bacteria live in our belly buttons.
This knowledge is not new, though it was new to me.
What else is new: Many of those bacteria were heretofore undiscovered.
Doing the discovering was a group of North Carolina-based researchers who published the results of their Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project:
And how this one missed the Nobel Prize for Science – well, perhaps that’s another existential question.
According to Rob Dunn of North Carolina State University, the project began two years earlier – two years that they spent swabbing the navels of 500 volunteers and then identifying their findings.
I can’t help but wonder – how did they advertise for those people?
Once those 500 were swabbed, the team somehow narrowed down their samples to focus on just 60 individuals.
I can’t help but wonder – how did they do that?
Dr. Rob Dunn: I like the squiggly stuff!
Fellow Scientist: OK, but I want that purply thing!
Within those 60 samples the team found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of which may be new to science. Altogether, the researchers found that the average belly button among study participants contains 67 different types of bacteria.
Our navels are a veritable wildlife park!
Though the simile Dr. Dunn prefers is “like rain forests. It’s quite beautiful. And it makes sense to me as an ecologist.” And to support his belief in that beauty, he offers this image at rondunnlabcom:
I think this looks like what comes in a box of Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Collection cookies, but what do I know?
And another scientist described our navels as “a cache of a lifetime of little treasures,” that “lifetime” probably referring to those volunteers who rarely bathed and/or ignored their belly button hygiene.
Not only did the team possibly discover almost 1,500 new species, but they learned that some bacteria appear to be arriving in our navel niches from unlikely places:
- One bacterium residing in a belly button, Marimonas, had only been found in the ocean before.
- Two types of bacteria more typically thrive in ice caps and thermal vents.
- Another species, called Georgenia, had only been found living in the soil – in Japan – though the volunteer had never been there:
So – a wildlife park, a rain forest, a cache of little treasures? Which are you?
Take a look, and you decide.
I still say they look like cookies:
(Can you tell which is the cookie and which is the Bacillus bacteria?)