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Roller Derby Microbe Exchange

Jesse Jenkins

During roller derby bouts, players exchange more than just knocks and bruises. They also exchange microbes. Learn more... 

Diverse communities of bacteria live in and on our skin—aiding and instructing our immune system to combat pathogens and harmful bacteria. But where these microbial communities come from and how they are impacted by human contact remains largely unknown.

During roller derby bouts, players exchange more than just knocks and bruises. They also exchange microbes. Source: Vimeo

To shed some light on how the skin microbiome is influenced by human interactions, a group of researchers from the University of Oregon decided to look at the skin microbes of roller derby competitors. Their findings are reported in a paper published today in PeerJ (1).

“A lot of research in this field happens in hospitals looking at sick people sharing their pathogens, when really most of us are covered with mostly really good bacteria that we share all the time,” said study author James Meadow, a researcher at the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon. “So this is a way to look at how healthy people share entire communities rather than just sick people sharing pathogens at a hospital.”

In the study, Meadow and colleagues took samples from the exposed upper arms of roller derby skaters—which come into frequent contact during bouts—before and after a match to determine if there were any changes in the players’ skin microbiomes.

The sampled players were from three different teams that participated in last month’s Big O Tournament in Eugene, OR. Each team was from a different geographic area: the Emerald City Roller Girls from Eugene, OR; the DC Roller Girls from Washington, DC; and the Silicon Valley Roller Girls are San Jose, CA.

By comparing the pre-game and post-game samples, Meadows’ team found a dramatic shift in each player’s skin microbiome. Those unique biological signatures soon became blurred as the players knocked into competitors from other teams during the course of the match, exchanging microbes in the process.

“Initially everyone carried this strong signature of their team, I think most likely because of geography, but as they came in contact with one another that signal wore off, and they became more similar to one another,” continued Meadow.

This makes sense to Erin “Bullet” Brains, PR Head and skater with the Emerald City Roller Girls. “Before the bouts we are doing meditations together where we have our arms around each other, and we’re spending time together. But then we go and bout and we’re making full-on contact with the other team,” Brains said.

To conduct their study, Meadow’s team extracted DNA from each sample and then targeted the ribosomal gene 16S, which is used to identify the different species of microbes, for amplification. The lab then used high-throughput DNA sequencing to analyze each player’s bacterial communities.

Now, Meadow’s lab is interested in conducting further tests to see how long the effects they observed might last.

“We were able to sample a pretty strong effect before versus after the bout, but we don’t know what happened the next day or the next week, and I think that would be a really interesting part of this,” said Meadow.


1. Meadow, J.F., A.C. Bateman, K.M. Herkert, T.K. O’Conner, and J.L. Green. 2013. Significant changes in the skin microbiome mediated by the sport of roller derby. PeerJ