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Introducing Our Newest Project: Armpit and Earwax Microbes!

July 8, 2017

Wet and dry earwax samplesWe’ve added a new project to our lineup of ways that you can help Museum scientists with their research! We’ve looked at belly buttons and we’ve explored your armpits. Now we’re examining earwax with the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project!
Armpit and Earwax Microbes is a collaboration between Dr. Julie Horvath, researcher in the Genomics Research Lab in the NRC and professor at NC Central University, and Dr. Reade Roberts at NCSU. This new project looks at a specific gene, ABCC11, and how it influences the microbes that live on your body, particularly those found in your armpits and in your earwax.

This study is part of an ongoing series of investigations by Dr. Horvath and her colleagues that examine the role of microbes in our daily lives and how they help explain human and primate evolution. ABCC11, the specific gene targeted by the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project, is interesting because it influences the type of earwax you have, wet or dry. Wet earwax is the greasy yellow type of earwax common to people of European and African ancestry. In contrast, native North Americans and Asians tend to have dry, flaky earwax. The type of earwax you have is determined by which variant of ABCC11 you have. The type of earwax you have also correlates with how much you sweat. People with wet earwax sweat a lot more than people with dry earwax. More sweat tends to lead to greater body odor, which is ultimately caused by the bacteria living on your skin. It therefore stands to reason that people with wet earwax will have different skin bacteria types than people with dry earwax. This is what the Armpit and Earwax Microbes project is hoping to find out!

Why armpits and earwax? Both bodily secretions are produced by apocrine glands, a special type of gland that is only found in specific regions of the body in humans and other primates. The apocrine glands of your armpits are responsible for sweat while the apocrine glands of your ear canal contribute to earwax production. Since apocrine gland secretions depend on the variant of the ABCC11 gene a person has, there is a high likelihood that the type of earwax you have will predict which types of bacteria like to live in your armpits and the sort of body odors you might produce.

You may wonder why we should care about the bacteria living in your armpits or your ear canal! Apart from the thrill of learning something new about the human body and the many, many other species that use our bodies to survive, there are medical implications for this research. The ABCC11 gene also influences how your body responds to certain drug treatments. If you ever need treatment for cancer, for example, your body may respond more or less effectively to certain types of treatments based on what type of ABCC11 variant you have. Thus, you earwax type might also help determine which life saving drugs will be most effective should you ever need them.

We are currently looking for volunteers to contribute samples for this exciting new project! If you’d like to get involved, there are several sampling opportunities to choose from this summer. At a sampling session, your armpits, ears, ankle, and the side of your nose will be swabbed for bacteria and you’ll be asked to fill out a survey. The samplings take about 30 minutes including the survey, are free, and are open to adults ages 18+. As a participant, you will receive an image of your bacterial plate(s) and your ABCC11 genotype.  Please note, however, that you cannot wear deodorant/antiperspirant or clean your ears for two full days before your samples are collected. These actions strongly influence your microbiome, so you’ll need to be willing to go product free for a few days to participate!  

Ready to volunteer? You can sign up at for one of the sampling sessions at the Museum. The next date is coming up next week on 7/15, but we have another sampling planned for 8/2. There are other sampling sessions offered at NCSU and NC Central as well. We hope you’ll join us as we take another dive into the exciting world of the human microbiome!

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