The Wild Life of Your Body

Project: Armpit Life

Project Status: Ongoing

Participation: We are collecting ideas for our next armpit project! (stay tuned for details)

Project Description:

You responded overwhelmingly to belly buttons so why not explore another body part… the armpit? Our friends Julie Horvath, Sarah Council and Julie Urban from the Nature Research Center @ the NC Museum of Natural Sciences are leading a collaborative effort to figure out exactly what kinds of microbes are living in our armpits, what those microbes might be doing in there, and if/how those microbes differ among people and our closest evolutionary relatives (primates!)

In the summer of 2012, we initiated the Armpit Life project with PitStart. We recruited 18 volunteers who experimentally altered their use of deodorant or antiperspirant for one week to help us understand how the skin microbiome changes with underarm product use and disuse. Volunteers sampled their armpit flora on a routine day of normal product usage, 5 subsequent days when they stopped using product, and then the next 2 days after they resumed their product routine. As we did for Belly Button Biodiversity, we plated the pit microbes and used non-culture dependent methods, sequencing 16S rRNA.

Since PitStart, we’ve sampled and sequenced the armpit microbes of 20 additional volunteers and have initiated collaborations with the North Carolina Zoo to sample non-human primates, including chimpanzees, baboons, and gorillas.

We are combing through the data and are in the process of analyzing and writing up the results from these early studies. So far we’ve found that the use of underarm product (antiperspirant and deodorant) has one of strongest effects yet seen on the composition of the skin microbiome, especially when compared to other factors like gender and soap usage (Urban et. al 2014, in prep). We’re also comparing our skin microbiome to that of non-human primates; our work is the first of its kind to study the skin microbiome of non-human primates using non-culture dependent methods (Council et. al 2014, in prep).

We’re not soliciting samples from the public right now, but stay tuned here for ways you can get involved in our future work. In the meantime, check out what Rob Dunn has to say about how mammals use the eau de bacteria created in their apocrine glands to chemically communicate with one another.


In April 2014, we traveled up to Boston for the GET (Genomes, Environment and Traits) Conference and swabbed over 80 people from the Personal Genome Project (who had volunteered to go without product for two days!). Those analyses are ongoing.

And check out our new gallery of Armpit Life sampled from our participants this summer.