An Ecosystem Under Your Shirt: This Scientist Says Your Belly Button May Contain Bacteria That Are 'New To Science'

Belly buttons don't get a whole lot of attention these days. Not only are they tucked underneath clothing most of the time, we also tend to think of them as strange little things that don't serve a purpose for us after the umbilical cord has been snipped.

But there may be more to belly buttons than meets the eye. Rob Dunn and his team of microbiologists at the North Carolina State University has been studying belly buttons closely and performing testing on a sample of 60 individuals. 

Their conclusion? Basically, belly buttons are veritable "rainforests" of bacteria. The average individual has 67 different strains of bacteria in their belly button, and some people are host to over 100 strains. 

That's not all, though, because these aren't your average strains of bacteria. Out of the 2,368 species found in their samples, 1,458 of them may be "new to science," says Dunn. Which raises a whole bunch of questions about how they got there, and why they're sticking around.

Now hold on. Before you run off to the washroom to scrub your belly button clean, you should know that having bacteria in your navel is not necessarily a bad thing. 

In fact, bacteria are very much a part of us: the average person has roughly 39 trillion bacteria living in their body, and only 30 trillion human cells. Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, so they only equate to about 1 to 3% of your body mass. Still, that comes out to 2 to 6 pounds in a 200-pound male, which is a whole lot of the stuff.

While some bacteria are harmful, most of what's kicking around in our bodies are integral to our health. As scientists continue to research this area, we're discovering that bacteria boost our immune systems, help relieve stomach issues, and might even prevent asthma in babies.  

Which means the fact that you have something like 67 species of bacteria living inside our belly button is nothing to be afraid of. If anything, we should become less grossed out by bacteria as a society.

Now that we're past that, let's look at the research. The team of scientists working on the Belly Button Biodiversity project have found some fascinating things. Keep reading on the next page!


When Rob Dunn got back the results from the 60 people who swabbed their belly buttons, which were then tested under a microscope, some of the results were baffling.

One test subject, a science writer, had a microbe in his stomach that had previously only been found in Japan, carried in soil. The weirdest part? He had never been to Japan.

Another sample, from a test subject who claimed he had not taken a shower or bath in several years, was found two species of bacteria that scientists call "extremo-phile." These strands are typically found in extreme weather environments like the Arctic, which made it shocking to find them inside the belly button of an average American. How did they get there?

The truth is, it's still a mystery. Dunn and his team are still trying to figure out how these bacteria got there, and what purpose they might be serving. 

We're like the scientists before Darwin who went out on the Galapagos Islands and brought this stuff on the ship and said, Check out this bird that's totally weird—this has got to be important!," said Dunn in an interview with National Geographic. "They were still so far from understanding the big picture," Dunn said. "That's where we are."

Dunn's team is continuing to research the microbes living in our innies and outies in the hopes of understanding them better. In the meantime, one thing is for sure: I'll never look at my belly button the same way.


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