Time to Meet Your Mites!

May we scrape your face for SCIENCE?

I imagine this is not a question one generally expects to be asked when visiting his or her friendly neighborhood natural history museum.

And yet it’s one we’ve asked on a fairly regular basis during public outreach events over the last few months at the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

You would be AMAZED (I know I have been) at the number of enthusiastic volunteers who have stepped right up to participate, curious to learn a something about the tiny organisms that call their pores home.

In fact, some people like ant biologist Corrie Moreau traveled all the way from Chicago to get her face scraped for science. (Photo credit: Holly Menninger)

In January 2013, we launched Meet Your Mites, our latest public science project to investigate the common, but poorly understood species in our daily lives.

One of the Demodex specimens we collected (Photo credit: Dan Fergus)

Our subject: Demodex mites, the microscopic parasites living in the hair follicles of numerous mammals, including humans.

We’re interested in studying the evolution and diversification of Demodex mites – particularly the two species associated with humans, Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis. Specifically, we want to use the information encoded in Demodex DNA to map the mites’  “family tree” and see how closely that tracks our own human family tree.

Our first task was to physically collect the critters – something we knew would be tricky. Although previous research (based on human cadavers) suggests that all adults have them, most researchers have only been able to collect mites off of 15% of the people they sampled when gently expressing sebum from pores (much like what an aesthetician does during a facial).

Sure enough – after sampling 223 volunteers during public events like the Science Online 2013 reception, Darwin Day, and Science Thursdays – we were able to successfully collect mites from 33 people (and surprise, surprise at a recovery rate of 15%).

Anecdotally, our mites seem to be patchily distributed – If we find one mite on a person, we often find several. In fact, we’ve collected over 60 mites from those 33 individuals. Some of us also think there might be a correlation between alcohol consumption and mite recovery – we noticed that we tend to collect mites from more individuals when we sample at events where people have been imbibing alcoholic beverages. Then again, this observation could easily be confounded with time of day – those events all occurred in the evening, when mites are more active and in quest of mates. We could easily parse out these effects, though, if anyone is up for an experiment…

But we digress… We took pictures of each and every mite we collected during these events and today are pleased to share with you our face mite photo gallery: http://mymites.yourwildlife.org/ (Note each photo is labeled with a unique participant number to protect participants’ privacy – if you participated in the project and can’t remember your number, drop us an email and we can remind you!)

In the gallery, we invite you to behold the splendor of the face mite – Check out the subtle differences in their size, shape and texture. Watch them wriggle their cute little legs on the posted videos.

And what’s next for Meet Your Mites?  Our team has been busy at the lab bench refining methods for extracting and sequencing mite DNA, in preparation for building the mite family tree. To date, we’ve sequenced DNA from six mites and have 19 more in queue. We’re hoping to expand our sample collection to include volunteers from a diverse number of countries — Check out our map of participants who’ve dropped by the Museum so far – we’re not doing so bad…

We've collected samples from participants born in the following countries (green) and states (blue), and are on a quest to fill in the map with samples from many different countries! (Image credit: Megan Thoemmes)

We’ll keep you in the loop for new sampling opportunities as they arise and look forward to sharing more results with you soon!

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:26+00:00 May 17th, 2013|

About the Author:

Holly Menninger
As Director of Public Science, Holly coordinates our empire of citizen science projects and manages the online science communication here at Your Wild Life. An entomologist by training, she’s a science communicator by passion and practice.

9 Comments

  1. chloe May 21, 2013 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    hi I am Chloe .I am 8 years old an I love bugs. My mom sent me all different bug websites and one of them was you!
    I wanted to know if you can email me new scientific insect facts . My favorite part of your website is the part where it says Meet Your Mites. talk to me soon bye.

  2. Ignacio Gallo May 23, 2013 at 3:40 am - Reply

    Cute little buggers… I wonder whether they have mites on their faces too. And if they do… whether those have them as well :)

  3. […] Fun with follicles: Time to meet your mites. […]

  4. avy December 16, 2013 at 11:35 pm - Reply

    hello. this year i decided to do a science fair project on Demodex mites, and i need some information. i wonder if you can give me more information about the demodex mites. thank you;)

  5. For Your Holiday Eating Pleasure December 18, 2013 at 11:23 am - Reply

    […] few encounters with insects – not taking into account the bugs that live in our guts and on our faces. We have come to consider these encounters as invasions; affronts to our clean homes and our […]

  6. Dr. Francisco de Asís RUIZ March 14, 2014 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    Good day
    Re: mite identification
    Résumé: after longtime observations and experiments I came to the conclusion there must be parasitic mites in my home, located near Barcelona, NE Spain. I have evidences the origin is an ornamental higher tree named Melia azedarach from outside along the street walksides, that are infested by a pest: the mite Eutetranychus orientalis. I think of a DNA-based identification consisting in comparing my own DNA with the one of that mite. I have captured some pretty tiny individuals not visible at naked eye, that am keeping in esterile vessel with alcohol. One of my physicians suggested PCR test to check if there are 2 different DNA’s. The question is where can I find the family tree of this species of mite. This is my second discovery relating a tree pest with parasitic mites at home, bed etc. attacking humid regions of my body to suck out fluids as nutrients, as mite does in the leaves. My first one was similar: spider mites from a cypress of Italian type. My police theory seems to be right, but a confirmation in lab with a real mite on a sample is needed .
    What do you suggest for such a verification to validate my theory? Regards, Dr. F. Ruiz – issued Fri 14.03.2014 – Thanks

  7. […] then there’s Dr. Dan Fergus, whose special love for “Demodex sp.” drives him to scrape people’s faces or, the […]

  8. […] of new species and unexpected insights into the unprecedented diversity of the human microbiome. In Meet Your Mites, volunteers donate samples of mites that live in facial pores. Before visiting the Museum, you […]

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