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Surf's Up for Science: How Cliff Kapono combines surfing with science to study human health.

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.

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, page 5).

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.

Surfer Samples

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.

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.

words to know

microbes--organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye

fungi--living things that reproduce using cells called spores

bacteria-single-celled organisms that live in every environment on Earth

microbiome--the collection of tiny organisms that live in a specific environment, such as a human body

ecosystem--all the living and nonliving things in an environment

Body Dwellers

Which body parts have more microbes?

OBSERVE: Trillions of microbes, such as fungi and bacteria, live all over the human body.

* Hands-On: Body Dwellers (Student Edition, p. 7)

1. and 2. Answers will vary depending on which body parts were tested.


How do the microbes living on different parts of your body vary?

MATERIALS: nitrite gloves * 3 slices of boiled potato, each at least 2 centimeters thick (see preparation instructions in the Teacher's Guide) * 3 resealable sandwich-sized plastic bags * marker * tape * 2 paper plates * cotton swabs * paper and pencil


1. Pick two of the following body parts: mouth, nose, toes, armpit, forearm. Which do you think contains more microbes? Why? Make a prediction.

2. Put on your gloves. Place one potato slice inside a plastic bag and seal it tight. This will be your control, or the standard against which you compare your results. Use the marker to write "control" on the bag. Then place each remaining potato slice on a separate plate.

3. Use a cotton swab to gently rub one spot on your body for 45 seconds. Rub the same end of the swab on a potato slice for 30 seconds. The potato provides microbes with nutrients to help them grow.

4. Place the slice in a bag and seal it. Use the tape to reinforce the seal. Label the bag.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 with the second part of your body.

6. Set the bags aside for at least 48 hours to allow the microbes to grow. Do not open the bags for any reason. (Note: Within a few hours, parts of the potatoes will begin turning black because they've been exposed to the air. These black areas are not microbes.)

7. Study the potato slices inside the bags. Record your observations. Throw away the sealed bags after completing the questions below.

RESULTS: How do the potatoes' surfaces compare? Show your results in a data table.


1. Compare your results with those of another student. How are they similar and different?

2. Based on your results, which body part do you think is home to more microbes?

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.


Streptococcus mutans

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


Lactobacillus acidophilus

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


Demodex folliculorum

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


Staphylococcus epidermidis

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


Trichophyton rubrum

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

READING LEVELS: Lexile 840 / Guided Reading Level U

NEED A LOWER READING LEVEL? To access this article at a lower reading level, go to


Analyze a double-bar graph displaying percentages of bacteria types to compare the microbiome of a surfer with that of the average person.



Core Idea: LS4.D: Biodiversity and humans

Practice: Analyzing and interpreting data

Crosscutting Concept: Scale, proportion, and quantity COMMON CORE:

Writing: 2. Write explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.


Science: 3.2D, 3.9A, 4.2D, 5.2D, 6.2E ELA: 3.13A, 4.13A, 5.13A, 6.12A

Lesson Plan

(1) Introduce the term microorganism.

Write the word microorganism on the board, drawing a line between micro and organism. Ask:

* What does micro mean? (very small)

* What is an organism? (a living thing)

* So, what is a microorganism? (a very small living thing)

* Where do you think microorganisms--or microbes for short--live?

Explain that microbes are all around you! For example, move your tongue along your teeth. What does it feel like? Microbes in your mouth can form a layer of slime on your teeth. This layer can cause plaque to build up. Some microbes are helpful to humans, and some are harmful. Some microbes can break down waste. Other microbes can cause disease. There are even microbes that live in the ocean.

(2) Read the article and review it with a skills sheet.

Have students read "Surf's Up for Science" individually and complete the "No-Sweat Bubble Test" skills sheet (T10). Review the sidebar "Meet the Body Bugs" on page 5 to learn about a few of the microbes that live on the human body.

(3) Investigate which parts of the body have the most microbes.

The day before the lesson, boil potatoes for five minutes. Reheat the potatoes in a microwave on the day of the lesson so they're warm. Cut each potato into slices at least 2 cm thick.

Have students complete the activity "Body Dwellers" on page 7 to figure out which body parts have more microbes. Record class predictions from step one. After at least 48 hours, have students answer the conclusion questions and compare findings with the class predictions.

(4) Compare bacteria found on Kapono's hand with those found on an average hand.

Distribute the skills sheet "Comparing Data" (T3). Have students work with a partner to analyze the types of bacteria found on human hands. Review the answers as a class. Then ask: Do you think the percentages of bacteria on your hand would look more like Kapono's or more like the average person's hand? Explain.


available at

Skills sheets:

Comparing Data (T3): Analyze a double-bar graph about bacteria found on human hands.

No-Sweat Bubble Test (T10): Answer multiple-choice questions about the article.

Pick a Project (online only): Write about a possible research project related to a hobby or interest.


Comparing Data

In "Surf's Up for Science" (pp. 4-7), you learned that Cliff Kapono studied microbes living on people's bodies, including his own. A double-bar graph combines two sets of data so that you can compare them more easily. In the graph below, one data set shows the average percentages of different types of bacteria found on a human hand. The other set shows the percentages of bacteria on Kapono's hand. Study the graph, then answer the questions.

1. True or False: Kapono's hand has more Actinobacteria than Firmicutes.

2. Which type of bacteria shows the biggest difference between Kapono's hand and the average hand?

3. Which type of bacteria shows the smallest difference in percentages?

4. Proteobacteria are also found on ocean plants and animals. Does this surprise you? Explain your reasoning.

5. What can you learn from this double-bar graph that you couldn't learn from a single-bar graph?


1. True 2. Proteobacteria 3. Bacteroidetes 4. No, because Kapono is a surfer and he spends much of his time in the ocean. 5. You can learn the difference between the bacteria found on Kapono's hand and the bacteria found on the average human hand.


No-Sweat Bubble Test

Read each question below, then use the article "Surf's Up for Science" (pp. 4-7) to determine the best answer.

1. After Cliff Kapono spoke with his professor, he says, "it was the first time I realized that I didn't have to separate these two loves." What two loves is Kapono referring to?

(A) microbes and shoes

(B) surfing and science

(C) fungi and ecosystems

(D) traveling and mites

2. Microbes are "organisms [that] are too small to see with the naked eye." In this sentence, what does "with the naked eye" mean?

(A) without glasses or contacts

(B) with the ability to see through objects

(C) without using a microscope or a similar tool

(D) with a magnifying glass

3. Based on the text, in which of the following places would you expect to find microbes?

(A) the bottom of a pool

(B) the inside of your nose

(C) the surface of your desk

(D) all of the above

4. The author states, "Different microbes thrive in different environments." Which of the following is the best synonym for thrive?

(A) decrease

(B) die

(C) flourish

(D) shine

5. According to the sidebar "Meet the Body Bugs," which microbe would most likely cause you to smell unpleasant after playing soccer?

(A) Streptococcus mutans

(B) Staphylococcus epidermidis

(C) Lactobacillus acidophilus

(D) Trichophyton rubrum

6. According to paragraph 6 of the article, bacteria in your intestines do what?

(A) make you sick

(B) digest food

(C) fight off infections

(D) none of the above

7. What research question did Kapono investigate?

(A) Do surfers have microbes from the ocean living on their bodies?

(B) Do fungi cause athlete's foot?

(C) How many microbes are found in the ocean?

(D) How do the microbes living on different parts of your body vary?

8. How does the author present information in the section "Surfer Samples"?

(A) by stating a problem and discussing a solution

(B) by explaining the causes and effects of events

(C) by presenting a sequence of events

(D) by comparing and contrasting two things

9. How could Kapono use his research to tell the difference between a surfer and a non-surfer?

(A) They would have different microbes on their bodies.

(B) Surfers always carry surfboards and non-surfers do not.

(C) Surfers never leave the ocean.

(D) all of the above

10. Kapono is both a professional surfer and a scientist who studies microbes. Based on this statement, what can you infer about scientists?

(A) Scientists can use their interests to make discoveries.

(B) All scientists are surfers.

(C)Scientists only study microbes.

(D)Researching the ocean is the only way scientists learn about microbes.


1. b 2. c 3. d 4. c 5. b 6. b 7. a 8. c 9. a 10. a

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

Caption: Kapono wondered how spending time in the ocean affects surfers' microbiomes.

Caption: He took samples of microbes from the bodies of surfers around the world.

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

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Title Annotation:life science
Author:Bleicher, Ariel; Free, Katie
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2019
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