With temperatures over 90 degrees, would you be willing to go two days without deodorant?
That’s what Julie Horvath is asking people to do, so she can study the tiny organisms living on them.
Horvath, a biology professor at N.C. Central University and head of the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, is studying how a gene – ABCC11 – affects the types of microbes living on armpits and in ears.
Deodorants kill the microbes, she said, which is why participants were asked to not use deodorants or fragrances for two days before Horvath swabbed them.
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Horvath and her intern, Katie Jenkins, swabbed participants’ ears, nose, armpits, ankles and cheeks at NCCU recently.
One participant, Felecia Casey-Hicks, said the swabbing was not what she expected.
“For the ankles I was surprised it took as long as it took to get the microbes off of there,” Casey-Hicks said. “Going under the armpit, I kind of expected it to be kind of vulnerable because most people don’t pay attention to your armpit.”
Casey-Hicks, NCCU’s TV Studio manager, volunteered to help out.
“I feel like finding out about the microbes, it has implications for health reasons later on,” she said. “I thought that would be a good thing for me to do, as far as giving back.”
Researchers will send photos of the microbes to participants in the next few weeks, but Horvath said it will take them months to make any conclusions.
Most people don’t pay attention to your armpit.
Felecia Casey-Hicks, study participant
She hopes the study increases people’s interest in science.
“We use the armpits and earwax to engage people,” she said. “Kids think it’s really exciting, like ‘Oh, it’s so gross I want to hear more.’ And adults too, they’re like ‘you’re studying armpits and earwax, why would you do this?’ So it sort of engages people, and then I can pitch it to them and explain why it’s important. Even though it sounds silly, it’s really important and valuable research.”
Horvath explained to participants the two variants of earwax: wet and dry. The ABCC11 gene affects which variant you have. She said people with dry earwax tend to sweat less than people with the wet variant. People who sweat more have more microbes.
Microbes are essential for the body’s overall function.
“Every person has microbes on us and inside us,” Horvath said. “We know in our gut, they process vitamins, they help us digest our food, they can detoxify chemicals on our skin that create this protective barrier.”
The gene variant also affects how people process drugs.
“Some people who get cancer and get chemotherapy respond to chemotherapy differently depending on which variant you have,” she said. “So it’s really going to impact, potentially, personalized medicine.”
Since March, Horvath and her team have swabbed about 40 people in the United States. She hopes to reach 100 people before analyzing the data.
Horvath said other researchers on the project swabbed 30 people in Madagascar whose earwax had never been sampled. They hope to see if different lifestyles affect the types of microbes living on people.
“When we collect samples in Madagascar, they don’t typically wear shoes, and so they have a lot of microbes on their ankles because they aren’t washed every day with soaps and detergents,” she said.
Horvath collaborated with Reade Roberts at N.C. State University and Melissa Manus of Duke University for the project. She received funding from N.C. State’s Comparative Medicine Institute, NCCU and the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine.
If you’re interested in participating in the study, email NRCGenomicsMicro@gmail.com.
Ana Irizarry: 317-213-3553