You may think that the final biological frontier, the last unexplored ecosystem, lies somewhere at the extremes — the ocean depths, or maybe within an ancient glacier-capped lake. But it turns out there's actually a wealth of undiscovered biodiversity much closer to you — living inside your belly button.
It might be hard to believe, but nobody has really looked down there before, at least not in any organized kind of way. That is, until now. A group of scientists from North Carolina University in Raleigh and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have embarked on an unprecedented project to study what's living in your navel. The venture is being called Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB), and so far the early results are nothing short of shocking.
"Each person’s microbial jungle is so rich, colorful, and dynamic that in all likelihood your body hosts species that no scientist has ever studied. Your navel may well be one of the last biological frontiers," notes the project's website.
The first batch of 60 navels swabbed for the study have revealed more than 2,300 species of microorganisms. That statistic might gross you out, but wait until you hear some of the details. For instance, one common species found was Staphylococcus epidermidis, a bacteria that is involved in the fermentation of sugars when it lives in low-oxygen environments. Basically, this means that if you harbor any S. epidermidis in your belly button, you might also be storing a teeny tiny bit of navel wine in there too.
Another common type of bacteria found was the Clostridia group, which includes the species that causes botulism. Yikes! But before you begin to frantically wash out your belly button, understand that most Clostridia species are harmless and some are even beneficial.
In fact, one of the most striking findings of BBB so far has been that most of the organisms living in your belly button are helpful, or at the very least benign. The project has therefore taken as one of its missions to dispel the widespread "bad bacteria" stereotype. Many of the bacteria living on your body serve useful purposes, and if you scrub yourself too clean, it could end up making you more susceptible to fungal outbreaks or unhealthy skin. As anti-intuitive as it might sound, most of the thousands of bacteria living in your belly button are friendly.
Though many of the findings are only preliminary, scientists are enthused enough about the results to expand the project. The next frontier? Your armpit. In fact, scientists are currently planning to include other nonhuman primates in the armpit study, pushing the research in an evolutionary and behavioral direction. (Though it will take a brave soul to swab the gorillas' armpits.)
As an educational push, project researchers are currently working on an easy-to-use guide to inform teachers how to properly culture belly button bacteria,. If you're a teacher and are interested, they invite you to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related body science story on MNN: Why do I have belly button lint?