7th July 03:09
What the Germs in Your Bellybutton Say About You
What the Germs in Your Bellybutton Say About You
Jason Tetro |*15 hours ago
At one time or another, every human goes through the rather
introverted and personal experience of omphaloskepsis.
The term, better known as navel-gazing, originally described the act
of self-reflection through a complete physical and mental focus on the
bellybutton. The practice has been recognized as a method of prayer as
well as a way to open up the Manipura Chakra and bring oneself closer
to inner harmony.
The bellybutton has also been a focus for others as evidenced by the
development of navel-focused exhibitions such as belly dancing, samba
and well, Britney Spears.
But for people like my colleague Dr. Rob Dunn, the nature of the germs
inside the navel tells a far more fascinating tale.
About 18 months ago, researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Dunn, a North
Carolina State University professor, came up with an idea to explore
the ecology and evolution of daily life and wanted to find a spot on
the body that could provide an understanding of the natural skin
microbiome. They needed a place that was infrequently disturbed,
avoided the scrubbing of daily wash and was common to all humans.
There was no better choice than the bellybutton. Dunn and his clan of
navel gazers then invited people from two conferences, 60 in total, to
swab their bellybuttons and provide him with the samples, which he
took back to his lab and cultured. The next several months were spent
not only growing the bacteria, but also typing them to identify the
The first set of data is in review, but the results suggest that the
bellybutton offers far more to our understanding of life and our
journey through it. From these 60 people, Dr. Dunn identified close to
1,400 species of bacteria. From these, a number were predictable, such
as the ever-prominent Staphylococcus epidermidis and the
corynebacteria, both of which give off that "eau de germs" scent when
we don't wash frequently. But others, such as those found on volunteer
Carl Zimmer, were completely unexpected, such as species that are
found only in the ocean or the soil or in faraway lands.
The data has since led Dunn to identify the associated factors leading
to such a diverse bellybutton microbiome. He tried numerous factors,
such as age and gender but nothing was even remotely close. Then came
another possibility that seems to Dunn as though it may be the key. He
decided to get more information from the participants, including their
place of birth and where they had lived as children and beyond. That's
when the data almost miraculously came together revealing something
that was beyond incredible.
The navel bacteria were related to where the person has lived over the
course of their lifetime. The tiny anatomical vestibule was actually a
museum of lifetime experiences.
Dunn wants to see more data before he is totally convinced, but the
preliminary data are exciting. "Our bodies are recognizing the
universe in so many amazing ways," Dunn tells me. "While the brain
fumbles to understand ourselves in our own world, the body is learning
to adapt and co-exist with the environment around it. What we
experience stays with us like a never ending microbial diary."
While the idea of having a microbial signature that not only
identifies us individually but also tells others where we've been may
seem hard to believe, from a "corporeal ecology" perspective, the
concept is actually quite sound.
The body is continually in flux with the environment to find harmony
between various kinds of exposures and the body's reaction to them
through the workings of the immune system. Inert or even mutually-
beneficial exposures, such as good germs, will be allowed by the body
and even encouraged. Those that are parasitic, such as pathogens, will
be fought off and destroyed. As life goes on, we tend to hold on to
the germs that we like and keep them growing happily with us as we
continue our journey. Our bellybutton microbiome therefore reveals how
each of us as a member of the Earth's biome has interacted with and
reacted to the dynamics of nature.
As the number of volunteers grows, Dunn will have a better picture of
the wild life of the body and will no doubt continue to provide an
even clearer picture of humanity's relationship with the environment.
He is working with scientists at the Nature Research Center to focus
on armpits next, in the hope to identify what makes body odor so
unique to each individual and whether the human emotions of attraction
and dissonance may be bacteria-based. This may open up the opportunity
to focus on germs as a means to determine who might be the perfect
partner. Although it may be some time before the phrase, "What's your
armpit microbiome?" gains credence as a pick up line in bars.
Still, that prospect deserves some omphaloskepsis.