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Two Projects Aim to Learn How Microbes Affect Health

Self-trackers are turning their attention to the microbial menageries found on, and in, the human body.
December 21, 2012

The “quantified self” movement might need a new name. Enthusiasts are now tracking not just themselves but the trillions of bacteria that live in and on their bodies. 

Self-trackers use smartphone apps and gadgets to keep tabs on how much they exercise and what they eat—as well as their blood sugar levels and heart rate, and more—in the hope of finding new ways to improve their health. Taking note of the way microbial inhabitants of the body can affect health (see “Transplanting Gut Microbe to Treat Disease”), some are also looking for connections between their health and their microbial makeup (see “The Patient of the Future”).

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health published the most extensive catalogue yet of the bacteria that live in and on the human body (“Researchers Catalogue Your Microbial Zoo”). But a group of researchers based in San Francisco wants to explore the so-called microbiome more broadly. “The [NIH] researchers found a lot of amazing things, but they only looked at 250 people,” says Jessica Richman, cofounder of uBiome, a project that is crowdfunding its first round of sampling through Indiegogo. “One thing uBiome can contribute is a greater diversity of samples by involving people in regions not included in the NIH project. Our project works in any part of the world.”

Participants can purchase in-home sampling kits, and uBiome will provide surveys that ask questions about their health, diet, environment, and more. They hope this might reveal correlations between the microbial species and survey responses. Do people who drink a lot of coffee have a different farm of bacteria than those who don’t? Do people with a certain disease tend to lack a species found in most other people?

Another crowdfunded micriobiome research project, the American Gut Project, is focused on American stomachs (including those of family pets, apparently). The project offers extensive microbiome analysis for a whopping $15,000. But both projects have more affordable kits for single-site sampling—$69 will get you a gut check from uBiome, and $99 will get you the American Gut Project’s version.

If the crowdfunded project is successful, Richman says, the uBiome team hopes to turn its idea into a startup geared toward customers interested in tracking their micriobiomes. “Quantified self is entering the mainstream and it’s growing, and we’d like to be part of that,” she says. There may be helpful correlations to be found by “putting together your microbiome data with the foods you ate, and how many steps you take each day,” she adds. “The more of this data you put together, the better it is.”

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