WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — A skin fungus study found a diverse range of more than 80 fungal types living a microscopic life on the surface of human skin.

Scientists at the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Cancer Institute — both branches of the National Institute of Health (NIH) — wanted to better understand the fungal and bacterial populations on the human body.

The skin fungus study, which appears in the May 22 issue of Nature, could lead to improved treatments for skin diseases, even cancer.

“Human skin surfaces are complex ecosystems for microorganisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses, which are known collectively as the skin microbiome,” the study reports.

“Although fungal infections of the skin affect about 29 million people in the United States, fungi can be slow and hard to grow in laboratories, complicating diagnosis and treatment of even the most common fungal skin conditions, such as toenail infections.”

Of the many different types of fungus found, the researchers studied that a single type of fungus, belonging to the genus Malassezia, is predominant on the head and trunk. Hands were found to harbor a great diversity of bacteria, are home for relatively few types of fungi. In contrast, feet, including toenails, heels and toe webs contain tremendous range.

“Applying DNA sequencing to a study of the skin’s fungi is the natural progression in understanding microbial life that co-exists on our bodies,” said NHGRI Scientific Director Daniel Kastner, M.D., Ph.D.

The researchers collected samples at 14 body sites from 10 healthy adults. DNA sequencing of the fungi in the samples helped identify fragments of DNA, called phylogenetic markers, which can be counted and used to distinguish one type of fungus from another.

“Along with recent genome sequencing to define bacterial diversity, this analysis of fungal diversity provides a more complete human microbiome picture.”