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Crowd-Sourcing Scientists Seek Gut Microbes

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Photo: uBiome

A Bay Area citizen science project called uBiome is asking for a somewhat unusual contribution from the public: gut microbes. The samples will help scientists study how microbes affect our health.
 
Our bodies are home to trillions of microbes, which outnumber human cells by a factor of ten to one. This complex microbial community is called the human microbiome. Each person’s microbiome is a little bit different. Increasingly, scientists believe the differences in a person’s microbial make-up could be associated with conditions like obesity and diabetes.
 
“There’s even some work suggesting that things like depression and anxiety could be related to the microbiome community in your gut,” says Will Ludington, a microbiologist with uBiome.
 
UBiome is hoping to learn more about how human microbiomes differ.The three-person project is housed in the biotech incubator QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences.
 
Through uBiome’s online campaign, volunteers donate and get a sample kit to send back in. You might have guessed what kind of sample they need.
 
“It’s poop,” says Ludington. “I should say it’s a very tiny sample. It’s on the tip of a Q-tip.”  The sample kit kills any pathogens before participants drop it in the mail.
 
UBiome is hoping to genetically sequence more than 1,000 microbial samples and will send each participant their results, comparing them to other microbiome studies. Ludington says the project is possible because the cost of genetic sequencing has fallen dramatically.
 
More than 600 people have already contributed. “We’ve gotten people from all over the world,” says Jessica Richman of uBiome. “It’s been really great.” She hopes the crowd-sourcing model will help engage the public in science research.
 
“What’s more personal than your poop?” she says. “It’s often hard to get involved in science in a meaningful way.  I think our project engages you in understanding health and microbiology and people will start caring about it more. And the point is to use the data to help solve really important health problems.”
 
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