Roller derby is like giant hug with every girl on the track: swapping microbes due to contact

Often I think we as scientist do a really good job of convincing ourselves that our work is important. However, our research rarely makes a big enough splash that a study is widely accepted by everyone as awesome. Trust me, I have recently tried to excitedly explain to a non scientist at a party why finding the recessive mutation behind disliking cilantro was sooooo cool. It didn’t work…

But this study is so cool that it has already blown up the blogosphere. So much so that I was considering posting on an awesome new review by two of my favorite researchers out of the UK (if you haven’t read this yet you should. Also check out Britt Koskella’s blog… it’s pretty awesome). But being a roller derby skater myself (Rolling Hills Derby Dames), I decided I couldn’t let such an awesome study go by without posting about it.

At the moment, the field of microbial ecology is going from big to huge. This is partially due to the inexpensive availability of genome data making it possible to asses the frequency and species of microbes within all sorts of environments. It could also be due to the immediate applicability to human health, as the composition of the microbiome has been linked to obesity, bacterial vaginosis and potentially irritable bowel syndrome.

These communities vary across different parts of the body and individuals, and change over time. And although we know quite a bit about how pathogens can be passed from person to person due to contact, not much is known about the effect contact has on the microbiome.

Lots of contact. Photo Credits to Scott Butner

Lots of contact.
Photo Credits to Scott Butner

Meadow et al. (2013) set out to change that. And here we have to enter the viscously awesome world of roller derby. In derby, women on quad skates skate around a ovular track. Each team has one “Jammer” who scores points by skating past all the other women on the track. The other 8 women (4 from each team) try to aid their Jammer past the other skaters, while preventing the other team’s Jammer from getting through. Points are scored for every skater on the opposing team a Jammer passes. Oh and the only way you can prevent a Jammer from passing is by using your body to block her or hit her out of bounds. It’s a full contact sport… on skates. Pretty intense.


Figure 3: Team-specific micobiomes are significantly different after playing in a bout.
NMDS ordination diagrams summarizing similarity of skin bacterial community composition when all players are compared within their own teams before and after a bout. All ordinations are based on Canberra taxonomic distances. (A) Emerald City before and after bout 1; (B) Silicon Valley before and after bout 1; (C) Emerald City before and after bout 2; (D) DC before and after bout 2. Corresponding-colored ellipses are standard deviations on community variances for each group. All teams showed significantly different microbial communities before vs. after a bout. NMDS 3-dimensional stress: A = 8.1, B = 10.47, C = 16.2, D = 17.65.

This study is cool for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it involves roller derby, which is by it’s nature cool. Additionally it shows how important contact is for the microbiome, which in turn could predict certain health outcomes. So I’ll be keeping an eye out for more awesome microbiome studies in the coming months as this field continues to progress at an alarming rate.

Literature Cited

Meadow et al. (2013), Significant changes in the skin microbiome mediated by the sport of roller derby. PeerJ
1:e53; DOI 10.7717/peerj.53

5 comments on “Roller derby is like giant hug with every girl on the track: swapping microbes due to contact

  1. Thanks for the kind words! And the great piece. I have a friend attending a roller derby this week and I told her about this study. She was actually kind of grossed out and said she would now enjoy it in a “different way.”
    I think it’s super cool, and since increasing the additive genetic variation of a population increases the response to selection, I see nothing wrong with swapping a few microbes among friends (or competitors)!

  2. kstagaman says:

    I just wanted to say I’m glad to see this paper is getting so much attention! While I’m not directly involved in the paper, my lab does joint lab meetings with the lab that wrote it, and I spent my fair share of time discussing the finer details of the study prior to publication. (Yes, I know, I’m going for coolness by association, here, so what!)

  3. First off, I’m not scientist but I think it would be awesome to have found out the recessive mutation behind disliking cilantro! This article, kind of never makes me want to try roller derby. I’m really grossed out by the same skin bacteria. I wonder if this could happen to roommates or even family members that all live in the same household?

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