Well Being

Your Bellybutton Is Basically Its Own Ecosystem

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bellybutton rainforest bacteria

What could be lurking in this seemingly innocuous navel?

A new study out of North Carolina State University has plumbed depths previously unplumbed by science. Nope, it's not a really deep part of the sea near Australia or a newly-discovered Pacific volcano; it's your bellybutton. Scientists were surprised to discover that the human bellybutton is a tiny world teeming with undiscovered bacteria.

The Bellybutton Biodiversity Project, published recently in the journal PLOS One, was originally the idea of an undergrad at the university. Researchers liked the idea of showing the public the bacteria that was living on their own bodies, and, as ecologist Rob Dunn explains…”belly buttons are just ridiculous enough to appeal to almost everyone.” Bellybuttons are a rich source of microbes on the human body, mainly because they're rarely washed (Or rarely washed well. Ew.)

According to National Geographic, the research team found:

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

Whoa! Who knew that our bellybuttons could harbor microbes heretofore unknown to science? One person in the study, a science writer, was told his bellybutton contained a rare bacteria found only in Japanese soil—but he'd never been to Japan. Another dude, who apparently hadn't washed in awhile, found that his bellybutton had bacteria that normally thrives in polar ice caps and thermal vents. Sadly, there's no word on whether there were different bacteria based on if you have an “innie” or an “outie.”

Eight species of bacteria were present on more than 70% of the subjects in the study. To Rob Dunn, that makes the bellybutton a lot like a rainforest, where scientists can usually count on a few dominant types of trees. He said:

The idea that some aspects of our bodies are like a rain forest—to me it's quite beautiful. And it makes sense to me as an ecologist. I understand what steps to take next; I can see how that works.

But lest you confuse the hole in your abdomen with an uncharted land full of valuable species, consider that scientists don't yet know why the bellybutton is such a diverse environment for bacteria. Dunn and his team are embarking on a larger version of this study with over 600 participants and hope to correlate the bacteria from people's navels with things like birthplace, immune function, and more. So maybe a high percentage of bellybutton lint means you're less likely to get sick? Let's hope there's a good reason for all that weird stuff being in there!

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