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July 25, 2011
Volume 89, Number 30
p. 56

Glitches In Time, Navel Residents

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Belly Button Biodiversity
Navel academy: Scientists find new bacterial strains in
the belly button.

It's a chronically tardy person's dream: A CLOCK THAT SPEEDS UP on its own accord. For instance, such a device could trick the late riser into rushing through the morning's routine or the sluggish friend into actually meeting you on time. Thank you, North American Electric Reliability Corp.

According to the Associated Press's Seth Borenstein, NERC is kicking off an experiment this month that could cause trusty plug-in time devices to gain five, 10, or even 20 minutes over the course of a year.

Alarm clocks, microwaves, and programmable coffeemakers—anything that is powered by wall outlets and, incidentally, most things that tell us how late we are for work—don't use gears or pendulums to keep time. Instead, they operate on the assumption that the alternating current powering them is transmitted at a constant frequency of 60 Hz, which serves as a makeshift second hand. But power generators occasionally experience hiccups, and the current can slip off its usual frequency. To correct for this, grid operators purposefully offset the frequency by shuffling generators in and out of operation.

But this painstaking process of correcting frequencies is costly and can even trigger more slippage. To make the power supply steadier, save money, and, presumably, see whether people even notice the fruits of its time-consuming time-correcting procedures, NERC is taking a yearlong hiatus from these efforts. The irregularities in frequency will go uncorrected, and plug-in clocks will gradually speed up.

But have no fear! We won't completely slip into a Y2K-like scare of inaccurate time-telling. Clocks on computers, cell phones, and the Internet will not be affected by these incremental lapses in current frequency. And this impending wrinkle in time will give woefully unpunctual folks the perfect excuse: They're not late—everyone else is simply running on Electric Standard Time.

Whether you're in a rush or not, it's doubtful that your morning rituals include SCRUBBING YOUR BELLY BUTTON. At least this is the assumption scientists of the Belly Button Biodiversity project were banking on when they set out to investigate bacteria that colonize on the human body.

The researchers started with the belly button because not only is it isolated and relatively untouched by soap, it also lacks natural oils and other secretions that body parts such as the nose have, making the navel an ideal place for bacteria to thrive.

To investigate these belly button microbes, a team from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences asked hundreds of volunteers, including museum staff and science bloggers, to twirl a cotton swab around in their navels three times and place the swab in a vial. The researchers then grew the bacteria in a culture, sequenced the strains, and took photographs, which can be seen on the Belly Button Biodiversity project website (wildlifeofyourbody.org).

Although many of the 1,400 unique bacterial strains found belonged to a small collection of commonplace skin microbes, more than 600 of them seem to be new to the scientific community, says Rob Dunn, a biology professor at NCSU whose lab helped lead the project.

Researchers consider these initial findings to be just the tip of the swab for the human microbial landscape. Because of the navel's protected location, however, it might hold the most potential to unveil new information about the bacteria that live on our bodies.

Biologists have studied organisms in every corner of Earth but haven't thoroughly examined what's been, literally, right under our noses—until now. According to the project's website, researchers think the belly button "may well be one of the last biological frontiers."

Sophia L. Cai wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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