Monday Micro – just who are we?

By Siouxsie Wiles 04/02/2013

Hi, I’m Siouxsie. I’m 5 ft 2 inches tall (short?), on the rather rotund side, and have green eyes. I sport an abundance of pink/red hair although I’m naturally a brunette. That’s me. Or is it?

Because what I like to think of as me, my Homo sapiens cells, is outnumbered 10:1 by the microbes that live in and on my body. There are trillions of them. It’s not that I don’t like to bath or shower. On the contrary. No, these microbes are my microbiome. Only over the past few years have scientists come to realise just how important our microbiome is. It performs essential functions like digesting food and synthesising vitamins. It also keeps pathogenic microbes at bay, and regulates our immune system. In fact, our microbiome is thought to be responsible for many gut disorders, as well as eczema and chronic sinusitis, and may also play a role in our mood and behavior.

So wouldn’t you like to know more about this important part of you? Well, now you can. The uBiome project, on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, is offering to sequence your microbiome. Just US$79 (NZ$94) and you get your gut microbes. Or you can spend US$335 (NZ$395) for your gut, mouth, skin, nose and genital microbes. If you have the cash, you can really splash out with the Delta^5 deal (US$1,337/NZ$1,582), which will allow you to sample five different areas of your body on five occasions. Want to see how changing your diet affects your microbiome? Then this is the one for you!

So how does it work? It’s pretty easy. They send you a kit, you take a sample (a bit of poo for gut microbes, a swab up your nose for those microbes, you get the picture) and answer a health survey. You then send your sample back to be sequenced and when the data is ready, they send you a link to their website. Here they will you what’s in your sample and how it correlates to other people in the project (you can opt out of having your data included but the more people opt in the better for science).

So far, the campaign has raised over US$250,000 (NZ$300,000) with 2 weeks left to run. This project is inspired. The NIH funded Human Microbiome Project is looking at the microbiomes of 600 healthy individuals and the scientific questions addressed reflect the interests of the researchers. The uBiome project is opening up the technology to everyone. There is even a ‘Philanthropist’ supporter level, where you pay for someone in the developed world to have their microbiome sequenced. To date, over 1,800 people have contributed to the campaign and nearly 1,100 of those have opted to sampled some bit of their microbiome. That’s almost double the number of people sampled in the Human Microbiome Project.

Even more excitingly, the uBiome team want to involve the public in analyzing the data and generating and testing hypotheses. The data of those people who opt in will be open to the world, anonymised of course! Is this the future of science? I can’t wait to find out.

So watch this space, I hope to be posting my gut microbiome for all to see later in the year. And if you fancy joining me, then hop on over to uBiome and choose which bit of your microbiome you want to get to know better!

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