It turns out you can learn a lot about microbiology by simply sampling the bacteria from a belly button. Catawba College students enrolled in Dr. Carmony Hartwig's Microbiology and Immunology course last spring swabbed their own navels and discovered a new bacterial world.
Hartwig says her class "went wild" when offered the chance to have some inquiry-based fun. Twenty students worked to emulate an N.C. State University research project studying belly button bacterial biodiversity done in conjunction with the N.C. Science Museum in Raleigh (Huclr et al., 2012; in the lab of Robert Dunn).
"The original (NCSU) project used a high-throughput genetic sequencing method to look at identification of bacterial species from isolated individual navel cultures. I decided that since the students were in the process of learning microbial identification techniques through testing unknown bacteria this would be a fantastic opportunity to characterize one isolated bacterial colony from their own sample using both microscopy and biochemical tests.
"We also decided to perform genetic sequencing of the students' samples, which taught the students not only genetics-based laboratory skills, but bioinformatics techniques using known genetic information to get identification of an unknown species."
Hartwig explained that the DNA from each student's belly button bacteria was isolated and then a probe was run for a specific and conserved 16S rRNA sequence. "Of the samples sequenced we successfully generated over 50% clean and identifiable DNA sequence; fantastic for the first time our students attempted this kind of project," she added, noting that the Biology Department is currently doing a smaller inquiry-based modification to this project in the introductory Molecules and Cells course.
Senior Linda Castillo of China Grove was one of Hartwig's students and expressed her enthusiasm for the project. "The belly button project was a great way to build skills required in a research environment. While we were performing this small research experiment, we learned the techniques to build and form many types of bacterial cultures. We awaited the results and problem-solved if something went awry.
"Not only did Dr. Hartwig teach us the necessary for class, but she expanded it to give us a taste of what research really consists of. Each step of the way, we were curious to see what sort of bacteria each of us grew on our skin and were anxious to see the results - making the experience all the more worthwhile and enjoyable!"
"When we began the experiment some of us were rather skeptical of the probability that we would get interesting results. This couldn't have been farther from the truth. After taking samples from our own belly buttons and culturing the bacteria, we were amazed to see that the type of bacteria from one student to the next varied greatly. We learned many laboratory techniques throughout this project and Dr. Hartwig did an amazing job of making us see lab as an exciting experience rather than work we were required to do," senior Juliana Conte of Hampton, Ontario explained. "It was interesting to take something that was on our bodies, culture it and analyze our results. Overall, it was a great experience."