SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A California biochemist is surfing the world for microbes, and making waves in both the surfer and scientific community. His research into how the germs and bacteria found on surfers may hold an important key to human health, as well as the health of our oceans.
In San Francisco and at beaches around the world, surfers are the subject of a new scientific study.
University of California, San Diego researcher and biochemist Cliff Kapono is heading up the investigation. “What I’m hoping to find is actual evidence, empirical evidence, that illustrates just how related we are to the ocean,” said Kapono.
The graduate student is analyzing surfers not for their style, but their microbes. “We’re only part human. We’re mostly microbial,” remarked Kapono.
Only 10% of the human body is comprised of human cells. Most of “us” is actually a huge community of microbes. About 3 pounds worth of microbes live on or in our body, mostly in our gut.
That’s tens of trillions of living organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
This diverse community of germs which is called the microbiome helps to govern human health. While human DNA is 99.9% identical among humans; our microbiomes are incredibly varied. The National Institutes of Health is fostering research into our biomes to see what role these microbial communities play in human health and disease.
Generally speaking, research suggests how a good mix is linked to a healthy immune response. But an abnormal mix could play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, autism, diabetes, colon cancer, obesity, even certain autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis.
“We’re trying to see how the microbes in and on us effect these diseases,” said Kapono,.
Surfers intimately interact on a routine basis with a second microbiome – that of the ocean’s. It poses questions such as, is there an exchange of microbes between surfers and the sea? And does that mix benefit human health?
“Is a surfer different from someone who spends their whole day in an office or whole week in the office, or months or years? is there differences and can we detect those differences?” asked Kapono.
Kapono, a Hawaii native, is also a skilled surfer and passionate about his heritage. “The Polynesian people the people I belong to … we were explorers of the ocean,” he said.
Kapono has embarked on a different kind of exploration: a nine-month quest that took him around the world. The goal is to collect hundreds of samples from surfers on five continents for the Surfer Biome Project.
From Ireland, Morocco, Spain and more, Kapono would surf the rugged coast, and then swab surfers he met along the way. He documented his trip with a video camera and shared his footage with KPIX 5.
“We take these swabs, they look like Q-tips, and we rub them for a few seconds on the skin, and in the eye, ear, mouth, nose chest, and navel … and surfboards of different participants,” said Kapono. “We also asked them to provide fecal samples.”
Surfers also filled out detailed questionnaires about their health, and habits. Kapono eventually made his way to Ocean Beach in San Francisco. He posted on social media, and he said that the response from the surfing community was remarkable.
“We got more than enough participants to sample, and it was amazing,” he said.
All surfer samples were shipped overnight with dry ice back to San Diego. In Morocco, Kapono could not find any dry ice by shore, but heard though one of the local surfers that they had dry ice at a bar in Casablanca. Another surfer hopped on a motorcycle and droves hours to retrieve the dry ice and bring it back to Kapono.
Once a sample arrived in San Diego, researchers stored them in a special medical research freezer. Kapono ran sophisticated tests on them, analyzing their chemicals, as well as their genetic sequences.
The data is part of the American Gut Project where scientists are analyzing hundreds of thousands of human microbiomes from children and adults from all walks of life. ” … trying to understand how the microbiome bacteria in our guts affect our health across the planet,” said Kapono.
He believes ocean microbes do play a role in keeping humans healthy, especially surfers, and that polluting oceans may be polluting our health by altering our microbes.
“A healthier planet … a healthier people,” he quipped.
Kapono’s manuscript and research is now under review for publication in a scientific journal.