Alanna Kolette (Miss HIN 2009), hosting at Hot Import Nights in Pleasanton, Calif.
Oh, the belly button bacteria you'll find. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Mark Sebastian/Flickr)

Belly buttons can be sexy, but they can also be prime real estate for bacterial colonies. Scientists at the Belly Button Biodiversity project want you to take notice of your belly button, particularly the microbes that may be waiting to move in. Belly button bacteria represents important advances in divergent evolution.

Divergent personal hygiene, in the name of science

The Washington Post describes the human navel as a “bacterial nature reserve.” Through DNA analysis of undercover microbes conducted by Belly Button Biodiversity team leaders doctors Jiri Hulcr of North Carolina State University and Noah Fierer of the University of Colorado, we may be closer to understanding the hidden world.

“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,” says the Belly Button Biodiversity website. “It is time, then, to explore.”

Cleaning habits – or lack thereof – have made amazing discoveries possible. As few people wash their belly buttons with soap, the chance for microbial growth increases. Hulcr suggests there may be links between belly button bacteria and microbes that have previously only been found on the deep ocean floor. This opens entirely new avenues of inquiry within the study of divergent evolution, “the accumulation of differences between groups which can lead to the formation of new species,” according to Wikipedia.

Reading the DNA barcode

Since April 2011, the Belly Button Biodiversity project has analyzed belly button bacteria by sequencing the gene for 16S ribosomal RNA, a “DNA barcode” used in studying bacterial evolutionary relationships. Of the 95 subject samples that have been processed so far, more than 1,400 bacterial strains have been detected. Of those, 662 microbial strains meet no known family of classification, suggesting new scientific finds.

“We’re probably the only ones studying human belly buttons on such a large scale,” admits Hulcr.

Innie, outie, tomato, to-mah-to

Even though “outies” are rare among belly buttons, the microbial tenants tend to be the same, claim Hulcr and Fierer. Hairy navels collect more lint, dead skin, fat, sweat and dust, all of which contribute to microbial diversity. Navel melanoma is even possible. In a more subjective portion of the BBB study, the “ideal female belly button” is small and T-shaped. Outies and odd, horizontal shapes were considered less attractive by study organizers and participants.

A whole new world of belly button ecology

We know very little about what’s happening in our navels, says Hulcr, who compares the “a-ha” moments of the study to what it must have been like when explorers encountered African big game for the first time. Through a lack of direct involvement – by not using soap in the navel – humans are allowing new bacterial strains to take hold and flourish, says Rob Dunn, author of the book “The Wild Life of Our Bodies.”


Belly Button Biodiversity:

Divergent evolution Wiki:

‘In search of the ideal female umbilicus’:


‘The nature of navel fluff’:

Washington Post:

‘The Wild Life of Our Bodies’:

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