What Lives in Your Belly Button? Study Finds "Rain Forest" of Species

A "rain forest" of species thrive in our navels, a new study finds. Don't be alarmed, though—says one researcher, "It's quite beautiful."

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Belly button bacteria samples: Bacillus subtilis (left) and Staphylococcus epidermidis.

Rob Dunn and his team of ecologists aren't your average navel gazers. They're professional navel gazers, thank you very much, and their new study details the microbial contents of 60 volunteers' belly buttons.

The upshot? Belly buttons, it turns out, are a lot like rain forests.

The whole thing started about two years ago. An undergrad's only-in-a-biology-lab idea—sampling colleague's navel bacteria for a holiday card—struck a chord with the North Carolina State University team, which had adopted a new focus on citizen science.

What better way to get the public interested in science than by showing them their skin's own thriving ecosystems? "And belly buttons are just ridiculous enough to appeal to almost everyone," Dunn added.

What's more, given the belly button's status as one of the body's most rarely scrubbed crannies, it offered researchers a chance to study as close to a pristine microbial landscape as is possible on the modern human.

So in early 2011 the team set up shop at the ScienceOnline science communicators' conference and at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The researchers handed out swabs to 60 intrigued, if grossed out, volunteers. Back to the lab, the scientists examined the genetic makeup of their bacterial loot.

The Belly Button Biodiversity project had officially begun.

Welcome to the Jungle

From 60 belly buttons, the team found 2,368 bacterial species, 1,458 of which may be new to science.

Some belly buttons harbored as few as 29 species and some as many as...

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