Had your fill of germs?

June 1, 2011

In this issue of MLO, readers will find articles focused on bacterial biofilms, syphilis, and dengue fever as well as other tidbits about the ever-growing menu of life-threatening “bugs” and “superbugs.” Now, a troupe of NC State U scientists have launched a serious study focused on germs: The Belly Button Biodiversity project. Evidently designed to interest college-age students in microbiology, the project is revealing what people of any age manifest in their belly buttons.

This project choice was made because, say the scientists, belly buttons are full of germs … and because few people wash this area with soap, the “buttons” provide a safe haven for skin microbes. The fun-sounding study's leader noted, “We are probably the only ones studying human belly buttons on such a large scale.” On any scale is my guess. But it strikes me that the study might eventually catch on as a new trivia game for parties:

  • “What is the most common bacteria found in your belly button?” Staphylococcus epidermidis.
  • “Name at least two other microbes that exist in the navel.” Bright yellow colonies of Micrococcus luteus and gooey globs of

  • “What was the weight of the world's most famous belly-button lint ball?” (No specific answer yet, but part of one man's collection — 22 grams and counting — is in a museum to be admired: Read More.)

Since belly buttons have no secretions or oils like other “protected” body parts (e.g., nose, armpit), its microflora echo what is on the rest of the body. So, collecting samples with a cotton swab also could be incorporated into the party game, Toss the Swab: “Okay, Marsha, it is your turn to swab around your navel three times and toss the swab into the vial! You get three tries, then you are out.”

How about combining photography skills with this new object of curiosity? Participants' belly-button bacteria is grown in a culture; and when the culture is “big and chunky enough,” say the project's leaders, photographs are taken of donors' cultures and shared with them online via a special password. (Is therea chance those photos could be commandeered for use with Facebook and LinkedIn accounts or, perhaps, with a snappy musical background, be uploaded for entertainment to YouTube?)

But back to scientific truths here.

In the nearly 500 samples collected since the biodiversity project began in February, the scientists have found “almost universally bacteria, some molds and fungi, but not as many yeast as anticipated.” The study's lead researcher hopes to collect thousands of swabs (this could be a new hobby, too) and sequence a sampling of the bacterial DNA to identify each type in order to determine if there are noticeable differences 1) between the belly-button bacteria of men and women, or 2) based on how often one cleans one's navel. But why do I address this topic?

“Biodiversity” was more fun than the thought of discussing the fact that 47% of meat and poultry sold in U.S. supermarkets is infected with drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (out of the 30 types). The Translational Genomics Research Institute's study to be published in Clinical Infectious Diseases points out that more than half of the bacteria found in meat was resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics — and S aureus is not among four types drug-resistant bacteria the U.S. government looks for! Maybe some of us need to get busy pursuing a better inspection program to track the presence of Staph bugs in food instead of sitting around picking lint out of our belly buttons.