Field of Science

the Human Microbiome Project

I spent Sunday evening and all day Monday at a workshop at NIH on the Human Microbiome Project - a new project, not started yet but probably going to start soon. The idea is to sequence the bacteria and other microbes (viruses and even small eukaryotes) that live on our bodies. We have these bugs all over us - in fact, as one of the scientists at the meeting reported, there are probably 10 to 100 times as many microbial cells on/in an average human as there are human cells! Don't worry, the human cells are much, much bigger, so by weight we're still mostly human.

But the point is that we don't really have much idea of what these bugs are that are hitching a ride on us. Some initial DNA sequencing projects - one of which I was involved in, sequencing DNA from the human gut - have found that there are thousands of species, and that the bacterial micro-environments are dramatically different in different areas of our bodies. The mouth has its own microbial environment, for example, which is very different from the skin. But there are big similarities between people - so if you look at the bacteria living in the gut of two different people, they have a lot in common.

It might turn out that many of these bacteria are "inherited" in a Lamarckian sense - that they are passed on from parents at some point during childhood, or maybe even acquired from others in our community. We need to do much more work to find out, and that's what the HMP will be about.

The workshop had some excellent talks by scientists who have taken an early lead in these investigations - Jeff Gordon from U. Indiana, David Relman from Stanford - as well as discussions from Francis Collins of NHGRI about how this fits into their sequencing program. It's clear we have an enormous amount to learn about the bugs on our bodies, and it's very likely that these bugs will turn out to have some interesting connections to our health - so I'm guessing that NIH will fund this in a fairly big way. Stay tuned.

By the way, my friend Jonathan Eisen blogged on this too.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting stuff. This reminds me a bit of the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, which also seeks to understand the nature of and interactions between large numbers of bacterial species.

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