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Surf's Up for Science

How Cliff Kapono combines surfing with science to study human health

Kapono, a professional surfer and a scientist, is investigating the tiny organisms that live on surfers’ bodies.

Cliff Kapono thought he might be in trouble when his science professor called him into his office. Kapono was a new student at the University of California, San Diego. “I see you’ve been doing a lot of surfing,” the professor said. “I surf every day,” Kapono admitted nervously. He thought his professor would be upset.

To Kapono’s surprise, the professor replied, “That’s awesome!” The teacher suggested that Kapono come up with a science project that involved surfing. “It was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to separate these two loves,” says Kapono, a Native Hawaiian, who grew up riding the waves. 

The project Kapono settled on was right under his nose—and all over his body! He decided to study microbes. These tiny organisms are too small to see with the naked eye. But they live everywhere: the ocean, your kitchen sink, even inside your body.

Different microbes thrive in different environments. Kapono wondered if surfers had different microbes living on them than the average person. Searching for the answer would take him all over the world. 

Kapono wondered how spending time in the ocean affects surfers’ microbiomes.

Home Sweet Body

It may seem worrisome to know that your body is crawling with trillions of critters. But it’s completely normal! Microbes live on every part of the human body, from inside your mouth to between your toes (see Meet the Body Bugs).

Some microbes can make people sick, but most do no harm at all. Many microbes are good for us. Bacteria in your intestines help you digest, or break down, food. Other microbes fight infections.

Everyone has a different collection of microbes in and on their body. This collection is called the microbiome. A person’s surroundings can affect his or her microbiome. For example, farmers have different stomach bacteria than city dwellers. Dog owners carry different microbes than people without dogs. What you eat also affects your microbiome.

Your microbiome is an ecosystem like a rainforest, says Kapono, “but on a much, much smaller scale.” Learning about microbiomes can help scientists understand how to keep people healthy.

Meet the Body Bugs

Different microbes thrive on different parts of the human body. Here are a few critters that are common to most of us.

1) MOUTH BACTERIA: Streptococcus mutans

This species, which causes tooth decay, feeds on sugar from your food. Daily brushing can keep the bacteria at bay.

2) EYELASH MITES: Demodex folliculorum

These harmless critters live at the base of your eyelashes. They eat dead skin cells and oil on your face.

3) GUT BACTERIA: Lactobacillus acidophilus

These friendly bacteria help your body digest food. Without them, you wouldn’t get as many nutrients from a meal.

4) ARMPIT BACTERIA: Staphylococcus epidermidis

When these common skin microbes build up in your armpits, they can cause a real stink!

5) FOOT FUNGUS: Trichophyton rubrum

These fungi thrive in sweaty spots between your toes—and can lead to an itchy condition called athlete’s foot.

Think: Where else on your body might microbes build up?

Surfer Samples

Kapono took samples of microbes from the bodies of surfers around the world.

Kapono can spend hours surfing in the ocean every day. He wondered if surfers like him picked up microbes from ocean water that joined their microbiomes.

To find the answer, Kapono visited surfers around the globe, from Hawaii to Iceland. With their permission, he rubbed cotton swabs on their faces, feet, and other body parts to collect the microbes living there. Kapono even took small samples of surfers’ poop to study the organisms that lived in their stomachs and intestines.

“At first, the surfers were taken aback since I wanted to take a Q-tip and rub it all over their bodies,” says Kapono. But once they understood the project, they were supportive.

Kapono collected more than 500 samples from the surfers. Then he worked with a research team to study the samples in a lab. They compared the surfer samples to microbes collected from non-surfers. That would reveal whether the ocean “leaves its fingerprints on surfers,” Kapono says.

Kapono compared the microbes from surfers to those from non-surfers.

Ocean Traces

It turns out that even though surfers leave the ocean, the ocean doesn’t leave surfers. Kapono found large numbers of ocean microbes living on and inside the surfers he studied—including himself!

The amount of time a person spent in the water was also a factor. Surfers who stayed in the ocean for longer periods of time had more types of ocean bacteria living in their microbiomes.

Kapono hopes his research helps people understand that they are connected to the planet in many ways. “If we know that nature gives us bacteria that keep us healthy, hopefully we can take better care of it,” he says.

Continue the Learning Journey

Imagine you are a scientist who has discovered a new microbe living on the human body. Make a sketch of the microbe. Then use materials like cotton balls, tin foil, rubber bands, and cardboard to build it. Here are some questions to think about:

  • What is the name of the microbe?
  • What does it look like?
  • Where is it found?
  • Is it harmful or helpful? How?

Surfers often decorate their surfboards to show their interests or hobbies. What would you show off on a surfboard? Draw a collection of five colorful surfboards that express your interests. If you have materials like cardboard, construction paper, scissors, and tape, you can make miniature surfboards!

Body Dwellers

Explore the microbes that live on your hands.

Now you can be the scientist! Check out the slideshow above for an investigation about the microbes that live on your hands. You will need tongs, two resealable plastic bags, a marker, and two slices of bread (ideally, bread that doesn’t contain preservatives). Science away and have fun!

This article was written by Ariel Bleicher and Katie Free for Scholastic SuperScience magazine.

Image Credits: Jake Marote (Header); Joel Schumacher (Kapono); Courtesy Cliff Kapono (Surfer); DIGITAL STORM/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (Human Body); DR. DAVID PHILLIPS/VISUALS UNLIMITED/GETTY IMAGES (Mouth Bacteria); EYE OF SCIENCE/SCIENCE SOURCE (Eyelash Mites); SCIMAT SCIMAT/SCIENCE SOURCE/GETTY IMAGES (Gut Bacteria); SCIENCE SOURCE (Armpit Bacteria); DR. KARI LOUNATMAA/SCIENCE SOURCE (Foot Fungus); DANIEL LORCH (Samples); VISSLA (Kapono Lab)