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Tiny hitchhikers, big health impact: Studying the microbiome to learn about disease

I don't know about you, but I'm fascinated with the idea of the "microbiome." If you're unfamiliar with the term, it describes the millions upon millions of tiny, non-human hitchhikers that live on and in you (think bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic life). Although the exact composition of these molecular roommates can vary from person to person, they aren't freeloaders. Many are vitally important to your metabolism and health.

We've reported here on the Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2007 and supported by the National Institutes of Health's Common Fund. Phase 2 of the project started last fall, with grants to three groups around the country to study how the composition of a person's microbiome might affect the onset of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as its role in pregnancy and preterm birth. Now the researchers, which include Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, have published an article in Cell Host & Microbe detailing what data will be gathered and how it will be shared.

As explained in a release by the National Human Genome Research Institute:

"We're producing an incredibly rich array of data for the community from the microbiomes and hosts in these cohorts, so that scientists can evaluate for themselves with these freely available data which properties are the most relevant for understanding the role of the microbiome in the human host," said Lita M. Proctor, Ph.D., program director of the Human Microbiome Project at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

"The members of the Consortium can take advantage of each other's expertise in dealing with some very complex science in these projects," she said. "We're generating these data as a community resource and we want to describe this resource in enough detail so people can anticipate the data that will be produced, where they can find it and the analyses that will come out of the Consortium's efforts."

As I've recently blogged, data-sharing among researchers and groups is particularly important for research efficiency and reproducibility. And I'm excited to hear what the project will discover. More from the release:

For years the number of microbial cells on or in each human was thought to outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. This now seems a huge understatement. Dr. Proctor noted that the 10-to-1 estimate was based only on bacterial cells, but the microbiome also includes viruses, protozoa, fungi and other forms of microscopic life. "So if you really look at the entire microbial community, you're probably looking at more like a 100-to-1 ratio," she said.

Although thousands of bacterial species may make their homes with human beings, each individual person is host to only about 1,000 species at a time, according to the findings of the Human Microbiome Project's first phase in 2012.

In addition, judging from the array of common functions of bacterial genes, if the bacteria are healthy, each individual's particular suite of species appear to come together to perform roughly the same biological functions as another healthy individual. In fact, researchers found that certain bacterial metabolic pathways were always present in healthy people, and that many of those pathways were often lost or altered in people who were ill.

Stanford's Snyder will join forces with researchers in the laboratory of George Weinstock, PhD, of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Connecticut to investigate the effect of the microbiome on  the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Snyder may be uniquely positioned to investigate the causes of the condition. In 2012, he made headlines when he performed the first ever 'omics' profile of himself (an analysis that involves whole genome DNA sequencing with repeated measurements of the levels of RNA, proteins and metabolites in a person's blood over time). During the process, he learned that he was on the cusp of developing type 2 diabetes. He was able to halt the progression of the disease with changes in exercise and diet.

Previously: Stanford team awarded NIH Human Microbiome Project grantElite rugby players may have more diverse gut microbiota, study shows and Could gut bacteria play a role in mental health?

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