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New social network connects people by gut flora

MyMicrobes, created by researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, brings niche social networking to a new level--and price tag, with a $2,100 gut bacteria sequencing fee.

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
2 min read

Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

Earlier this year, researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, published a study identifying genetic markers found in people's stomachs that appear related to obesity and other diseases.

After that, "I got between 50 and 100 e-mails from regular people having problems with the stomach or diarrhea and wondering if we can help them," Peer Bork, a biochemist at the lab, told Nature last week. "They were long e-mails. There must be a lot of frustrated people out there."

Given the interest level, Bork and his colleagues launched MyMicrobes, which could be described as either a large-scale, open scientific study on human gut ecosystems, or an incredibly niche social-networking site.

Participants can find other registrants with similar microbial profiles. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

The idea is to connect people with similar intestinal bacteria so that they can share their diets and personal anecdotes, helping both the participants and the researchers to better understand which types of gut flora react positively or negatively to which types of foods.

The success of such an endeavor admittedly relies on a large number of study participants (or social networkers) to yield reliable results, and a large number of people could presumably be very interested in sequencing their own gut bacteria to learn more. Unfortunately, the fee for said sequencing is $2,100--an amount that could keep an already unusual network pretty niche.

Bork told Nature that some 120 people have registered, but not nearly as many have returned their gut samples: "It requires a critical number of participants. Just like competitors of Facebook, we might fail to get that critical mass."

That begs an interesting question: even if gut sequencing were free, would you choose to peer into your own innards at this level of detail? On the one hand, this seems like an obvious "yes," while on the other, it takes a little mystery out of our own inner workings, which, for some, is simply too much information.