*This post first appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on September 9, 2013.*
When it comes to science, I have the patience of a rabid fox, trapped in a cage, in front of which a wounded rabbit is standing. My family, the folks in my lab and the need for sleep balance this nascent madness. But sometimes the caged fox of mania escapes; sometimes when everyone else sleeps I can’t resist the run.
Today was one of those days. We saw another glimpse into the life inside belly buttons. Belly buttons are ridiculous and yet the life we study in them is not; it includes both dangerous and life saving species though in just what mix and why, well, that is what we’d like to know. As a result we have, over the last few years, worked with more than 500 people to sample the life in their belly buttons. It has not always been pretty (Imagine emails from concerned and infected citizens that include photos. Yes, we see those. No, please don’t send them.), but the aim was to have a consistent part of the body through which we might understand the differences more generally, person to person, in what lives on skin.
Your skin is covered in life, a fine featheriness of single-celled organisms, your verdant cloak of existence, a cloak so woven into your existence that it is not clear where it ends and you begin. This is life that colonizes you during or before birth and accumulates through living. It also sheds. The more you sit in a place, the more that place is filled with the microbes from your skin. We are all like Pigpen, tracking a cloud of our microbes wherever we go.