A biotech startup called uBiome is using online crowdsourcing to map the human microbiome, the complex ecosystems of bacteria living intimately with us.
"Think of yourself as a place where bacteria lives," said uBiome cofounder Jessica Richman. "By measuring what's there, we can learn what is going on in our bodies."
By crowdsourcing samples on Indiegogo, uBiome's biophysicists and cell biologists hope to build a diverse catalogue of the bacteria, viruses and microorganisms living on our bodies. The huge online database will be open to the citizen scientists who support the project.
So, why should you be interested in your body's unique bacteria composition? Prior research suggests there are certain correlations between microbes and diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and other conditions. Your ecosystem of bacteria can be a "good indicator of your health," which can tell you many things about your diet and weight if you're drinking too much coffee or alcohol, for example, Richman said.
Many scientists consider the human microbiome, the complex ecosystem of bacteria, the last human "organ" the science community hasn't extensively researched. (It sounds like a fun fact to tell at parties, but here's a way to help consider the body of bacteria living within you as an organ: The bacteria that lives on us and in us can weigh three pounds to five pounds.)
Understanding this ecosystem will benefit medicine. In the future, don't be surprised if your doctor takes a microbial sample along with a blood sample during your annual physical. Microbes can tell us a lot about your diet, immune system health and could possibly point to unhealthy imbalances.
The ongoing research to understand the links between bacteria compositions and human health could eventually lead to finding markers for diseases, according to researchers.
"We will be able to make correlations," Richman said. "We can also correlate the data set to existing studies."
Richman hopes the uBiome team can better understand how microbes can help make humans healthy or sick. Firstly, the team hops to make correlations between bacteria makeup with digestive conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and Crohn's disease.
Started as a citizen science project, uBiome investigators encourage project supporters to get involved. Individuals can ask questions and compare results.
The process to map out your bacteria composition is fairly simple with the uBiome kit. Anyone in 196 countries can support the uBiome project with $79 and receive a DIY swab kit. You'll swab your ear, nose, mouth, belly button and genital area to put together your own sample. Ship the kit back and when the lab has your results, you'll receive a unique login to see your data and graphs online.
According to uBiome, it's the world's first effort to map the human microbiome with citizen science. The project, affiliated with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, has raised $53,000 of their $100,000 goal with 19 days to go on the crowdfunding platform.