Roller derby rivals mix team microbiomes

U. OREGON (US) — When roller derby players slam into each other, the opposing teams mingle their distinct bacterial communities.

Human skin is home to countless microorganisms that we can’t see, but these microbes help to define who we are. These invisible passengers—known as the skin microbiome—contribute to health in such ways as educating the immune system, protecting people from pathogens, and mediating skin disorders.


In a new study, University of Oregon researchers investigated how the skin microbiome is transmitted between players in a contact sport, using roller derby as their model system.

The skin is the largest organ and an important barrier that regulates microbial entry into the human body. Despite the importance of the skin ecosystem, little is known about the forces that shape microbial structure and composition in the skin environment, say researchers in the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center directed by 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 influences 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.

DNA analysis reveals 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.

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 conclude.

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

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 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, DC, and the Silicon Valley Roller Girls from San Jose, California, all of which represented geographically separate groups.

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

This story was a collaborative effort between the University of Oregon and the journal PeerJ, which announced the study’s findings.

Source: University of Oregon