Gallery: Bacteria in Your Belly Button

Bellybutton bacteria biodiversity
This dish contains bacteria grown from a sample taken from someone's belly button. (Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

Belly button bacteria biodiversity stomach

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Unknown and mysterious species of microbe lurk in our belly buttons, the Bellybutton Biodiversity project is finding. Preliminary results from the project, based at North Carolina State University, show hundreds of new or little-known types of bacteria living in navels. Some of these miniscule creatures can grow into fuzzy colonies on petri dishes.

Sample No. 952

Bellybutton Bacteria Biodiversity

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

Bacteria grown from a sample collected from anonymous donor no. 952's belly button.

Sample No. 966

Bellybutton bacteria biodiversity sample no. 966

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

After the belly button bacteria are collected on a Q-tip. Researchers analyze their DNA to determine what species are present. They also grow those microbes that will cooperate in dishes like this one.

Sample No. 976

Belly button bacteria biodiversity sample. no. 976

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

No one knows what many of the bacteria found in bellybuttons eat and many species cannot be cultured in a laboratory. As a result, the microbes grown in dishes like this one do not represent all of a belly button's inhabitants

Sample No. 1123

Belly button bacteria biodiversity sample no. 1123

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

From the first 92 samples, researches counted 1,400 species, but the actual count is probably much higher, they say.

Sample No. 1129

Bellybutton bacteria biodiversity project

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

Of the 1,400 species, about 600 or so don't match up in obvious ways to known species, meaning they are either new to science or not well known, according to Rob Dunn, an associate professor in the North Carolina State University biology department, and the belly button principal investigator.

Sample No. 1130

Belly button bacteria biodiversity sampel no. 1130

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

So far, belly button investigators have found many, many species, but a substantial number of these are very common among the people who submit samples.

Sample No. 1135

Belly button bacteria biodiversity

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

The microbes living in our belly buttons and elsewhere on our skin play an important role in keeping us healthy, scientists are finding.

Sample No. 1155

Belly button bacteria biodiversity sample no. 1155

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

The project has received more than 400 samples so far, and has been overwhelmed by potential microbe donors

Sample No. 1158

Bellybutton bacteria biodiversity sample no. 1158

(Image credit: Bellybutton Biodiversity project)

As the project continues, researchers believe they could find thousands of additional species inhabiting belly buttons.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.