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What the Germs in Your Bellybutton Say About You

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At one time or another, every human goes through the rather introverted and personal experience of omphaloskepsis.

The term, better known as navel-gazing, originally described the act of self-reflection through a complete physical and mental focus on the bellybutton. The practice has been recognized as a method of prayer as well as a way to open up the Manipura Chakra and bring oneself closer to inner harmony.

The bellybutton has also been a focus for others as evidenced by the development of navel-focused exhibitions such as belly dancing, samba and well, Britney Spears.

But for people like my colleague Dr. Rob Dunn, the nature of the germs inside the navel tells a far more fascinating tale.

About 18 months ago, researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Dunn, a North Carolina State University professor, came up with an idea to explore the ecology and evolution of daily life and wanted to find a spot on the body that could provide an understanding of the natural skin microbiome. They needed a place that was infrequently disturbed, avoided the scrubbing of daily wash and was common to all humans. There was no better choice than the bellybutton. Dunn and his clan of navel gazers then invited people from two conferences, 60 in total, to swab their bellybuttons and provide him with the samples, which he took back to his lab and cultured. The next several months were spent not only growing the bacteria, but also typing them to identify the species.

The first set of data is in review, but the results suggest that the bellybutton offers far more to our understanding of life and our journey through it. From these 60 people, Dr. Dunn identified close to 1,400 species of bacteria. From these, a number were predictable, such as the ever-prominent Staphylococcus epidermidis and the corynebacteria, both of which give off that "eau de germs" scent when we don't wash frequently. But others, such as those found on volunteer Carl Zimmer, were completely unexpected, such as species that are found only in the ocean or the soil or in faraway lands.

The data has since led Dunn to identify the associated factors leading to such a diverse bellybutton microbiome. He tried numerous factors, such as age and gender but nothing was even remotely close. Then came another possibility that seems to Dunn as though it may be the key. He decided to get more information from the participants, including their place of birth and where they had lived as children and beyond. That's when the data almost miraculously came together revealing something that was beyond incredible.

The navel bacteria were related to where the person has lived over the course of their lifetime. The tiny anatomical vestibule was actually a museum of lifetime experiences.

Dunn wants to see more data before he is totally convinced, but the preliminary data are exciting. "Our bodies are recognizing the universe in so many amazing ways," Dunn tells me. "While the brain fumbles to understand ourselves in our own world, the body is learning to adapt and co-exist with the environment around it. What we experience stays with us like a never ending microbial diary."

While the idea of having a microbial signature that not only identifies us individually but also tells others where we've been may seem hard to believe, from a "corporeal ecology" perspective, the concept is actually quite sound.

The body is continually in flux with the environment to find harmony between various kinds of exposures and the body's reaction to them through the workings of the immune system. Inert or even mutually-beneficial exposures, such as good germs, will be allowed by the body and even encouraged. Those that are parasitic, such as pathogens, will be fought off and destroyed. As life goes on, we tend to hold on to the germs that we like and keep them growing happily with us as we continue our journey. Our bellybutton microbiome therefore reveals how each of us as a member of the Earth's biome has interacted with and reacted to the dynamics of nature.

As the number of volunteers grows, Dunn will have a better picture of the wild life of the body and will no doubt continue to provide an even clearer picture of humanity's relationship with the environment. He is working with scientists at the Nature Research Center to focus on armpits next, in the hope to identify what makes body odor so unique to each individual and whether the human emotions of attraction and dissonance may be bacteria-based. This may open up the opportunity to focus on germs as a means to determine who might be the perfect partner. Although it may be some time before the phrase, "What's your armpit microbiome?" gains credence as a pick up line in bars.

Still, that prospect deserves some omphaloskepsis.