Me, Myself, and My Microbes

By March 19th, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Comment

Participate in American Gut to find out what bacteria live in your body and help scientists gather data on the diversity of microorganisms that affect our health.

Explore the microbiome around and inside you with these citizen science projects!

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Bacteria usually get a pretty bad rap. Perpetrators of strep throat, food poisoning, hospital infections, the list goes on. But not all bacteria are insidious in their intentions–in fact, many are harmless and even friendly, including the trillions that tag along in and on our bodies on a daily basis. In return for providing these microorganisms with a comfortable and long-lasting residence, they perform a number of chores for us and proactively help maintain our health.

Notably, they extract energy out of the food we eat, aid in the development of our immune system, and fend off intruding pathogens. Bacteria live in multiple areas on the human body, but bacteria in the gut have received the bulk of scientists’ attention so far. And not without good reason–these bugs amount to a whole kilogram in an average individual’s gastrointestinal tract, meaning that on a yearly basis a human adult will excrete their own weight in fecal bacteria. Recent work has shown that bacteria in the gut environment play a causative role in weight gain, obesity, and malnutrition, and that sustained changes in diet can have substantial effects on the composition of these bacterial populations. So not only do the bugs in our gut affect our health and well-being, but our diet and lifestyle modulate what bacteria live there, giving the phrase “you are what you eat” a whole new meaning.

Thus far, most scientific studies on gut-residing bacteria have focused on specific cohorts of carefully selected individuals. As a result, these studies reflect our diversity “to about the same extent that Congress does,” as a team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder puts it. This team, led by microbial ecologists Rob Knight and Jeff Leach, wants to remedy current limitations by obtaining a larger set of bacterial data from a much more diverse population- basically people like you and me, or even literally you and me.

In a citizen science project called American Gut, Knight, Leach, and collaborators offer anyone living in the U.S. the opportunity to submit a biosample (from your skin, mouth, or fecal matter), and for a $99 donation they will process and analyze your sample and give you a detailed description of the microorganisms on your body, in your mouth, or in your gut (depending on the source of your sample). Additionally, the analysis offers you a relative comparison of your bacterial community to the thousands of other people who have participated in the project.

So what’s happening with all the data that’s being collected? American Gut asks participants to take a lifestyle survey and a detailed week-long dietary inventory to accompany their biosample. American Gut researchers and collaborators seek to associate different factors like smoking, veganism, or gluten intolerance to different microbial communities. ”We’re interested in whether we can pick up diet, geographical or seasonal associations. There are also some more specific projects being run through American Gut on inflammatory bowel disease, autism, and several other diseases” said Knight. Overall, scientists studying the human microbiome (or the collective genome of host-associated bacteria) want to know which of these factors make a difference in shaping our microbial populations and what that means for our health. By crowd-sourcing data from all walks of life, American Gut is amassing what’s arguably the largest and most diverse set of information on host-associated communities to start discerning this information. “It will substantially expand our knowledge of the kinds of microbiomes that are out there, will give us a better understanding of what matters and what doesn’t (in terms of factors and controls), and will perhaps allow us to start seeing similarities among different disease states (depending on how many people who are willing to share de-identified medical information sign up).”

Using a citizen science approach offers the benefit of having a large pool of data to work with, but there are some downsides. “The main challenge is cleaning up errors in the data, for example, we don’t really think we have participants who were born in 1060 or in the future (and we don’t know how they managed to bypass the web form validation either),” said Knight. In line with its citizen science goals, Knight and Leach have prioritized making the project open source and open access. The data, in the form of sequences of bacterial DNA (with no personal information), will be publically available for anyone to obtain and analyze. Most academic labs don’t have the funding to generate this type of data, so American Gut enables researchers to independently pursue their own hypotheses about the microbiome and its complex interplay with the environment and human health.

Interested in knowing what bugs are in and on your body? Perhaps you want to know how your bacteria change over time or what bacteria you share with a family member or significant other? Check out different options for your donation to American Gut. Even biosamples from dogs are welcome!

Image: Courtesy of Rob Knight at American Gut

More reading on the microbiome:

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html

2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microbiome-graphic-explore-human-microbiome/


Sheetal R. Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.

 

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