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A Mitey Fun Project!

December 12, 2013
Demodex mite

Demodex mite, courtesy of yourwildlife.org.

The Museum has been a part of some fascinating citizen science projects headed by the Your Wild Life team at North Carolina State University. Your Wild Life projects focus on the things that live on and around us and the team is learning things we’ve never known before with the help of Museum researchers, such as how many species of arthropods (insects, spiders, and their kin) live in the average home and how many species of bacteria live in the armpits of humans and other primates. These questions help us understand how the interactions people have with other species help shape the way we live and can tell us more about where we came from.

The Museum’s Genomics and Biodiversity Labs are currently working with the Your Wild Life team to tackle a new question: how many species of face mites live on humans? We’ve known that we have mites living on our faces (well, in our pores and hair follicles) for a long time, but they remain poorly understood. According to the scientific literature, there are two species of mites, both in the genus Demodex. Nearly all adult humans carry Demodex mites. (You’re picturing them living on you right now, aren’t you!) But there’s so much more to learn about the little mites that call us home, and the Genomics and Biodiversity Labs and the Your Wild Life team are working together to make new discoveries! We don’t know, for example, exactly how many species of mites we really have living on our bodies. (The researchers at Your Wild Life suspect it’s more than two.) We also don’t know whether our mites vary depending on our hygiene habits or whether they like certain people more than others. A recent study suggested that people with rosacea, for example, have much larger mite populations than people without rosacea, so there is likely a lot of variation between individuals with different skin types and conditions.

In order to learn more about these mites, the researchers in the Genomics and Biodiversity Labs and the Your Wild Life team are collecting samples from the faces of a wide range of people for their Meet Your Mites project. They have already conducted several public sampling events. After filling out a brief questionnaire, they sit you down in a chair and spend a couple of minutes scraping and pressing your face with a spatula to express your pores, then collect the material that comes out. (They remove a lot of the crud from the pores on your cheeks and forehead in the process, so it’s rather like getting a mini-facial. Bonus!) Once they have a sample, they look at it under a microscope and remove any mites they find. The mites are photographed and preserved for analysis. Later, they do a genetic analysis on any mites collected.
Once the sequences are completed, the team will compare the sequences for each mite detected against those from the rest of the samples. They also post photos of any mites they recover on the Your Wildlife website. If you are one of the lucky 15% that provides an actual mite to the team, you can see your mites online!

Our researchers and the Your Wild Life team have gathered a lot of great data so far. From it, they will be able to determine whether there really are just two human face mites or whether there are more. They’ll also be able to create a sort of family tree for the mites that colonize humans and see how well the mite family tree tracks our own. Many other species of mammals, including dogs and other primates, also have Demodex mites, and we don’t know (yet) if our mites originally jumped over from another species or have been unique to humans all along. With the data they’ve collected, our researchers are hoping to find out! Happily, our Museum visitors represent a wide range of skin types and nationalities, so we’re already well on our way to being able to tell everyone a lot more about the fascinating microscopic creatures living on our faces.

There are still opportunities to contribute a sample to Meet Your Mites! The Your Wild Life team is currently most interested in sampling people who were born in other countries and people who have rosacea. If you fit these conditions, please contact Dr. Holly Menninger to let her know that you would like to participate. Otherwise, you can fill out the notification form on the Meet Your Mites page and the Your Wild Life team will let you know when they’ll be conducting another public sampling event. It’s a great way to get involved in science, and meet YOUR mites!

For more information about citizen science opportunities at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, please visit naturalsciences.org/citizenscience.

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