Roller derby contact leads to mixing of teams' skin microbes

A new study by University of Oregon researchers has taken contact sport to a new – and very scientific – level.

The researchers investigated how the skin microbiome – the microorganisms we can’t see, but help define who we are – is transmitted between players in a contact sport, using roller derby as their model system. The invisible microbes contribute to health in such ways as educating the immune system, protecting people from pathogens and mediating skin disorders.

UO authors of the new study point out that the skin is a human’s largest organ and an important barrier that regulates microbial entry into the body. Despite the importance of the skin ecosystem, little is known about the forces that shape microbial structure and composition in the skin environment, according to researchers in the UO’s Biology and the Built Environment Center directed by UO biologist Jessica Green, a former skater for the Emerald City Roller Girls in Eugene.

Green and colleagues hypothesized that contact sports could represent an ideal setting for studying how human-to-human interactions influence microbial ecosystems, and they chose the world of roller derby to explore how touching affects microbial transfer among athletes. The project was conducted at a roller derby tournament hosted by the Eugene-based team.

Talk Derby To Me from Tristan Wheelock on Vimeo.

DNA analysis revealed that bacterial communities predict team membership, with teammates sharing distinct microbial communities. However, when opposing teams competed in an hour-long bout their microbial communities became significantly more similar.

The study was published in the journal PeerJ, a new London- and San Francisco-based peer-reviewed, open-access journal in which all articles are freely available. James Meadow, a postdoctoral researcher in the Biology and the Built Environment Center, led the project.
The idea of working with local athletes was sparked by co-author Keith Herkert while he was working on his undergraduate honors thesis project in Green’s lab.

Herkert, who was in the UO’s Robert D. Clark Honors College when the research was conducted, is now pursuing an advanced degree in dentistry at Oregon Health and Science University. Teams involved in the study were Emerald City Roller Girls, DC Roller Girls from Washington, D.C., and the Silicon Valley Roller Girls from San Jose, Calif., all of which represented geographically separate groups.

Differences among the teams’ unique skin microbiomes — determined by pre- and post-game swabs taken from exposed upper arms — were driven in part “by the presence of unique indicator taxa that are commonly associated with human skin, gut, mouth and respiratory tract.”

Brevibacterium, for example, was found to be the strongest indicator for the DC Roller Girls. The microbial communities on the host team more closely resembled surface samples taken from the Eugene roller rink.

The mixing of bacterial communities during a bout was likely the result of skin-to-skin contact. “Human-to-human contact is the most parsimonious interpretation for the significant changes in skin microbiome we observed,” the researchers concluded. Scientists have long known that bacteria can spread among people through direct contact.

This study is the first to illustrate the promise of using contact sports to understand how human interactions can influence our microbiome.

The research team noted that population growth is likely to increase the rate of person-to-person contact in expanding urban areas. Studying skin ecosystems, they wrote, could have implications for health care, disease transmission and general understanding of urban environmental microbiology.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the UO supported the research. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Co-authors with Meadows, Herkert and Green – who also is affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and an academic editor for the journal – were Ashley C. Bateman, a graduate student in the center and the UO Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and Timothy K. O’Connor, a former technician in the UO center.

- from the UO Office of Strategic Communications