This is a guest post from Jessica Richman, co-founder of uBiome and a PhD scholar at Oxford University
Amidst the current focus on genomic testing, there is a new field emerging with a different approach to metagenomics: direct-to-consumer sequencing of the microbiome.
The microbiome are the bacteria that live on and within us; all of us are actually covered in helpful germs (or co-evolved symbionts if you prefer). Like the rainforest, the healthy human microbiome is a balanced ecosystem. The correct balance of microbes serves to keep potential pathogens in check and regulate the immune system. Microbes also perform essential functions such as digesting food and synthesizing vitamins. Some research also suggests that microbial activity influences mammalian mood and behavior.
Studies have linked microbiome imbalance to autism, depression, and anxiety, as well as many gut disorders, eczema, and chronic sinusitis. Infant health even appears to benefit from a proper seeding of microbes at birth, with health consequences ranging into adolescence. (see Leroy Hood’s editorial in Science on additional commentary on the microbiome).
To bring this technology to the public, my co-founders and I started uBiome, the world’s first citizen science effort to map the human microbiome. If you join our project, we’ll send you a sampling kit with a cotton swab. You swab the affected area and send the kit back to us.
Then, we’ll send you a login to our website. There, you’ll find three things: 1) a catalogue of your own microbes, detailing the microbial composition of the body and explaining what is known about each genera of microbe. 2) a comparison of your microbiome with scientific studies on the role of the microbiome in health, diet and lifestyle and 3) personal analysis tools so that you can anonymously compare your own data with crowd data.
From a small sample on a cotton swab, a uBiome test can help anyone learn more about their body. Some facets that can be gleaned from the microbiome include:
- Diet: Certain gut enterotypes are strongly associated with long-term diets, particularly protein and animal fat (Bacteroides) versus carbohydrates (Prevotella).
- Diabetes: Gut microflora may correlate with people who have diabetes. Sinusitis: The nasal microbiome may be associated with a profile of chronic sinusitis. Some studies have found that multiple, phylogenetically distinct lactic acid bacteria were depleted concomitant with an increase in the relative abundance of a single species, Corynebacterium tuberculostearicum.
- Alcohol consumption: Gut microbiome profile clusters may be similar to those of heavy drinkers.
- Bowel conditions: Irritable Bowel Disorder (or any other bowel condition) can be detected for via your microbiome.
The project is already supported through crowdfunding efforts at www.indiegogo.com/ubiome. Each uBiome gut kit is $69; gut and mouth kits are $139 for both (+$12 shipping outside the United States for each). Kits will be sent out in May 2013, with the results returned on our website once kits are received from each participant.
So far, the uBiome project has garnered almost $60,000 in crowdfunding from over 500 participants in less than a month. Participants from twenty different countries spanning four continents have pledged their support, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, as well as India, Singapore, and Uruguay.
To participate in the uBiome project, please visit: www.indiegogo.com/ubiome
About the author
Jessica Richman started and sold her first company after high school. She completed her undergraduate degrees at Stanford University, and later worked for Google, McKinsey, Lehman Brothers, the Grameen Bank, and top-tier Silicon Valley venture firms as well as other entrepreneurial projects and adventures. Jessica is currently a PhD student at Oxford University, arriving as a Clarendon Scholar and completing an MSc at the Oxford Internet Institute. Currently a Green Templeton DPhil Scholar, her academic interests include network analytics, innovation, and collective intelligence. Follow Jessica on twitter @venturejessica.