uBiome project to sequence the bacteria that live on us

Researchers plan to correlate the sequenced microbe genomes with volunteers' health to look for causes of disorders such as autism and multiple sclerosis.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
Researchers will be testing swabs taken from thousands of paying volunteers. uBiome Project

Oxford University Ph.D. student Jessica Richman, who today finished raising some $350,000 from more than 2,500 people wanting to take part in the uBiome project, isn't shying away from reality: "Yes, we are going to be sampling people's poo," she told the Guardian this week.

And for the squeamish, she offered an asterisk: "You'll only have to wipe it on the toilet paper."

The uBiome project is a "citizen science" effort to sequence the genomes of the trillions of bacteria that colonize our bodies and likely play pivotal roles, both good and bad, in our health.

By sequencing the bacteria of volunteers (provided via Q-tips swabs of mouths, noses, ears, genitals, and guts) at a lab at the University of California in San Francisco, and then having volunteers log into a Web site to complete health surveys, Richman and her team hope to eventually understand what causes a range of health issues, from breast cancer and Crohn's to dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The uBiome project has far surpassed its original $100,000 goal (deadline was this morning). Apparently plenty of people are not afraid to sample their own feces.

And it turns out that sequencing the many strains of bacteria that live in and on our bodies -- known as the "microbiome" -- may be every bit as complicated as sequencing the human genome; after all, microbes outnumber human cells 10 to 1, according to the researchers.

The results may provide a good deal of information about the roots of various health issues given that "about 30 percent of the small molecules found in the blood come from the microbiome," Richman said. "So it certainly looks like some of the illnesses we see are linked to it."

Various studies are implicating specific strains of bacteria in a range of health outcomes, both good and bad. The science gets extremely complex, though, because the bacteria do not live in a vacuum and are interacting with other bacteria all the time.

Richman, who calls this "exploratory science," does not shy away from the challenge and hopes to discover correlations between bacteria strains and health outcomes to better understand both health and disease.

Meanwhile, volunteers who have paid into the project have the option to not only access details gleaned from their own, er, swabs, but to share that data if they choose. "Your data is yours -- you can download it, share it, do whatever you want with it," the team writes on its funding site. "We encourage you to opt-in to share your data with our scientists, but we respect your privacy and will not force you to do so. The data is also anonymized and private."

As for whom the researchers hoped would volunteer:

Everyone! skinny, fat, sick, healthy, Coke, Pepsi, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, babies, grandmothers, lactose intolerant, gluten allergic, happy, sad, smoker, drinker, bald, vegan, smelly, bad breath, brown hair, blue eyes, blue hair, brown eyes, Atkins diet, high carb diet, sleepy, gassy, anxious, horny, asexual, smart, dyslexic, gorgeous, pregnant, and completely average. Babies, older people, women, men...everyone!