Just two months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of acting not as a science scholar but as a research participant. Instead of having my face in a book, I willingly offered it to a woman who diligently scraped my forehead in search of Demodex mites. I know that it's everyone's humble dream to contribute their own exquisite arachnological flora to Science with an S and so, yes Reader, I can feel your oozing envy.
I spent the last weekend of January in Raleigh, North Carolina attending the incredible Science Online 2013 conference and one of the events at the opening reception included an opportunity to "Meet Your Mites" from the Your Wild Life team. As you can imagine, I quite literally squealed for joy. Demodex is one of my favorite parasites and I was eager to contribute my own special brand of commensal to a subject that is little studied. While waiting impatiently in line, my fellow participants and I gazed at a video of a squirming captive mite recently scraped with spatula from a very lucky individual and excitedly wondered if we too would see our own Demodex under the microscope.
You can see a Youtube video below of a mite that yielded to the executioner's spatula from the Science Online event below!
Your Wild Life is a "team of scientists, science communicators, students, and citizens who are passionate about exploring the ecological frontiers that exist right under our noses." Thus far they've ventured into some amazing, uncharted territory - looking at the bacterial biodiversity of belly buttons and armpits, the spectrum of arthropod species in human households, among other fact-finding missions that seek to illuminate the underlying richness that lives within and around us.
Meet Your Mites is their very latest biological mission on this little known buggie. In fact, the most that we know of Demodex mites is that … well, that they can be found on people's faces. We don't know much of anything about their evolutionary history, their geographical distribution and prevalence, or their preference for cosmetics. Just what are these little guys (and girls) up to? Why are they nesting in our eyebrows, crawling over our eyelids and eating our sebaceous goo? What kind of awful cosmological practical joke is this?
Megan Thoemmes is a research assistant affiliated with the this endeavour and she kindly enlightened me on this very fun project.
What is the goal of the Meet Your Mites project?
The purpose of this study is to map the evolutionary history of Demodex mites with the expansion of human populations through time and space. Despite their intimate, parasitic relationship with human hosts, Demodex mites have not been extensively studied. We will trace the evolutionary history and diversification of Demodex mites, and in doing so, gain new insights about the radiation of human populations.
This is the age of personal science, where we are learning about the similarities and differences between people and their own individual biomes. Understanding our association with these organisms is an important piece of the picture when figuring out the relationships we have with the species that live on, in and around our bodies. This project also serves as an opportunity to reach out and engage the public in both interesting and significant research.What have you guys found so far?
The project is still in its infancy, so we don't have a large sample size or any solid results yet. We have just had our first round of sampling events, and we are trying to figure out our methods for getting the best possible DNA sequences from the mites, but we do seem to have a good method for sample collection. We're also working out a new way of getting mite DNA from an individual's face that would allow the participant to easily sample themselves, while allowing us to get a large number of samples from around the world.
Even though we are still in the early stages of the project, I suppose that one of the most interesting observations we have had is that there is a lot of morphological variation across the individual mites, and we think it is possible we could be seeing more than the two previously described species of human specific mites.
Under the microcope, a captured Demodex brevis, one of two species of Demodex mites found on humans. Image: Your Wild Life. The Meet Your Mites project hopes to shed light on the ancient history of one of our most ancient and overlooked commensals. I'm eager to hear what they discover and to see if one of my own little mite sidekicks has yielded any of my precious bodily secrets. And if you're in the Raleigh-Durham area, you can contribute to this form of citizen-science too, as the project is hosting various "face sampling events" over the year. You can sign up here to be notified of upcoming events and check out their website on the project here. Face sampling, ya'll, face sampling! How can you resist?
Visit the Your Wild Life website to learn more about their fun projects, the resarch team and read their blog.
Dr. Rob Dunn heads the Your Wild Life project with Dr. Holly Menninger and has written a book on the subject of our commensal comrades. You can purchase his book here and visit his website here.