The Belly Button Biodiversity Project History

Back to project home

It started as small lab project that quickly transformed into the world’s first citizen science project exploring the microbial diversity of our bodies.

In January 2011, we launched Belly Button Biodiversity to investigate the microbes inhabiting our navels and the factors that might influence the microscopic life calling this protected, moist patch of skin home.

In addition to inspiring scientific curiosity, Belly Button Biodiversity inspired conversations about the beneficial roles microbes play in our daily lives.

Hundreds of eager navel-gazers participated in the study, donating samples at in-person events in the Raleigh-Durham area, many hosted by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. In response to popular demand, we later opened up our study to people all over North America. We were overwhelmed by the response and stopped collecting samples in 2012.

Volunteers participated in the study by twirling a sterile swab in their belly buttons to collect their microbes. We then did two things with the swabs:

  • We plated each individual’s sample and let it grow for a couple days, creating a microbial ‘portrait’ unique to each participant.
  • We used basic molecular biology to extract and sequence the DNA from the microbes collected from each belly button. We looked specifically at the 16S rRNA gene, a gene that’s extremely variable across different strains of microbes. It provides a molecular “fingerprint” that we use to distinguish one species from another. With the help of special software, we then turned the microbial sequence data into meaningful results: lists of species (and their relative abundances) for each belly button.

Using this data, we explored basic questions about the diversity of microbes in belly buttons:

  • What and how many species live in the belly button?
  • Why are some species common in many belly buttons and (most) others are rare?
  • What factors determine the number and kinds of microbes we see in individual belly buttons?

We also asked you, the public, to get involved in analyzing the data and sharing your insights, questions and new hypotheses.

Although data collection stopped in 2012, we continue to chug along with analyses. Science can be painfully slow sometimes. Check out the Results and Data page for our most recent findings.