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Get to know the bacteria and viruses that call your body home

November 29, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • Jessica Richman, Zachary Apte and William Ludington hope to create the world's largest database of the human microbiome through their citizen-science project UBiome.
Jessica Richman, Zachary Apte and William Ludington hope to create the… (UBiome )

Are you willing to take a close look at yourself for science?

A really, really close look?

A team of scientists in the Bay Area is inviting citizen scientists to join them in a quest to create the largest database of human microbiomes in the world.

The human microbiome is the ecosystem of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses that live on and in your body.  

If that makes you feel squeamish, get over it. Your body is an ecosystem, providing a home for trillions of microscopic organisms. In fact, your body has more of these microorganism cells than human cells. And you need them to live.

The microbiome mapping project, called UBiome, is still getting off the ground. Earlier this month, the scientists behind it turned to the crowd-funding website Indiegogo to solicit funds. If they get the funding they need, they hope to start shipping human microbiome sampling kits out by May.

In order to take part in the project -- and have the scientists map your personal human microbiome -- you'll have to contribute $79 for a gastrointestinal microbiome kit. It will come with a cotton swab and a sterile container. You take a sample of your gastrointestinal microbiome and send it back. The folks at UBiome extract and sequence the DNA of the cells they find there, and send you back information on what's living inside your gut. 

If you contribute more money, you can also get information about the microbiome in your nose, mouth, skin and genitals. 

It turns out there is a lot we can learn from studying the human microbiome. Scientists have already discovered that some autistic people have a different gastrointestinal microbiome than non-autistic people. And people who are circumcised have different genital microbiomes than people who are uncircumcised.

Jessica Richman, one of the founders of UBiome, said that if enough people participate in the study, scientists (and citizen scientists) may be able to learn how the composition of a person's microbiome relates to depression, breast cancer and obesity. She said her team is also hoping that citizen scientists will suggest new ways to look at the data UBiome collects.

It's also an entirely different take on self-discovery.

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