Abilene Reporter-News April 1, 2014
Medical Discovery News
By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
A biotech startup company called uBiome has adopted the concept of crowdsourcing, using the Internet to rally people around a cause, for research on the human microbiome. The microbiome is all the microscopic flora and fauna that live in and on the human body. Humans have 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. But science is just beginning to understand the populations of the microbiome and how they affect a person’s health for good or bad.
What science already knows about the microbiome comes from the $173 million government-funded Human Microbiome Project. This project took five years and researchers collected and sequenced the microbiome of 250 healthy people. It proved there are at least 1,000 different types of bacteria present on every person. The National Institutes of Health has made the four terabytes of data from this project available to all researchers via the Microbiome Cloud Project.
Different anatomical sites of the body have different microbial populations. Additionally, the microbial populations that inhabit our bodies vary from person to person, but are very stable within an individual. Each person has their own distinct microbial signature that is unique to them. Most of these microbial species are actually helpful and protect against invading microbes that can cause disease. Some, like certain E. coli in the gut, actually produce essential vitamins that keep us healthy. Alterations in the human microbiome have been associated with diseases such as autism, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome and asthma. In some cases, correcting microbial populations associated with disease states may cure or help manage the disease.
A startup company called uMicrobiome is looking to sequence the microbiomes of at least 1,000 more people from all over the world, and they are trying to find volunteers using crowdsourcing. Anyone interested can go to the company’s website, make a pledge, and request a sampling kit, which contains a swab for gently brushing areas of the ears, mouth, genitalia or gastrointestinal tract. The swabs are placed into a solution that preserves and stabilizes the bacteria for transport back to the lab.
uMicrobiome examines samples for their 16S RNA sequences. These sequences are present in all microbes, but part of the sequence is unique to each different bacterium. This technology of DNA sequencing can determine the different types of bacteria present and their proportions in each sample.
The company puts the results on its website for individuals to access and analyze their microbiome. There are also software tools to help users interpret what they are seeing. uMicrobiome secures the data so that it cannot be released in an identifiable form. A person can choose to share their data with other citizen scientists for scientific studies or compare their microbiome to others.
So science to the citizens has arrived! Anyone can learn about their own microbial world and advance this field of science as well.
Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.