Scientists estimate that the cells of our bodies are outnumbered 10 to 1 by bacterial cells which live in or on our body. A previous blog has already pointed out the impact of this fact on sequencing the corresponding host genomes. On the other hand, microbiomes have the potential to play an important role as diagnostic markers, or opening up new ways of treating diseases, such as personalized medicine.
However, we are just beginning to understand the complex relationships of this “social network”, as the Scientific American has called it. The most complex bacterial community within the human body resides inside the gut. In order to obtain a deeper understanding of the bacterial communities of the human gut, there have been several attempts of sequencing the gut microbiomes of larger groups of individuals, such as projects by Arumugam et al., Yatsunenko et al or Schloissnig et al. However, so far, the number of individuals which were analyzed was relatively small (up to several hundreds).
A group of US scientists have now started the “American Gut Project“. As reported by Genome Web News, this project is planned as a crowd-sourcing study of 10.000 or more individuals in the US. Since this study is part of the “American Food Project”, it will mainly focus on gut microbiome patterns in relation to diet, age and lifestyle. People who would like to participate in this study need to sign up via a website and donate $99. This money will be used to cover a significant part of the cost of the study. In return, participants will receive a taxonomic profile of their gut microbiome.
The analysis itself will be based on 16S sequencing. For part of the samples, additional analyses such as sequencing the complete metagenomes and long term surveys are planned. No doubt, this study will clearly provide us with a huge data set. However, this data set will be highly complex. Also, it still needs to be brought in context with data from other projects. To my opinion, interpretation of the data still remains the hardest part. Or, as project organizer Jeff Leach has put it in an interview with Genome Web Daily News: “We don’t expect to be able to address some questions, but because of the size of the sample and because of the broad patterns we expect to see in diet and lifestyle, we think some stuff will fall out.”