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LA Surfers Are Covered In Germs And Scientists Are Stoked To Study Them

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UCLA professor Jennifer Jay takes a nasal swab from a volunteer at Venice Beach. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jay)

Watch out surfers. The scientists are coming for ya.

Turns out surfers are the perfect specimens of study when it comes to research on germs at the beach. Because... they're covered in them -- often.

Scientists at UCLA are looking into two strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that turned up at 17 beaches from Malibu to Encinitas last year when the water was relatively clean. They hope the research will help them figure out how to track the movement and impact of these germs.

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The only trouble? Recruiting the right participants.

"You can't do an experiment where you purposely put [regular] people into an environment with antibiotic-resistant bacteria," said Dr. Jennifer Jay, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the project's lead researcher.

While most infections aren't serious, in some cases they can cause pneumonia and other complications. Both strains are difficult to treat using currently available drugs.

But surfers, as any of them will be happy to tell you, are different. Sort of.

"Surfers tend to surf the same beach, so it's easier for us to basically set up camp to take the samples at the same spot," Jay said.

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Here's how the experiment is expected to work: In the fall, about 40 volunteer surfers and a control group of 40 non-surfers will answer a health questionnaire, then get a cotton swab stuck up their nose so researchers can get a baseline for their individual biome. As time goes on, Jay's team will be at the beach two to three times a week, every other week, to take water quality samples and collect new swabs from the surfer group.

Researchers will take a look at what ends up growing on the swabs -- whether it's MRSA, VRE, or another strain of bacteria -- and pinpoint where and when surfers picked them up.

A researcher swabs a volunteer surfer for an ocean bacteria study. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jay)

The study will last through the winter months, which is typically when the swell picks up in Southern California, and, to the chagrin of germophobic surfers, when ocean bacteria levels are at their peak.

Winter storms tend to wash pollution and runoff into local waterways like the L.A. River and Ballona Creek, which is how most of these superbugs end up at the beach and snaking in on our waves.

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Fortunately, you can keep track of L.A. County's and Orange County's beach advisories with these real-time maps.

And even if your local spot is in the clear, it's always a good idea to rinse off (after you get pitted, of course) with fresh water as soon as possible -- because no one likes a dirty kook.

Interested in joining the study? Jay and her team are only looking for regulars at Venice Beach or El Porto in Manhattan Beach, but the team is currently raising money to expand the study to more beaches throughout Southern California.

If you're interested in becoming a volunteer or donating, you can visit the Surfer Resistance Project crowdfunding website.

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