November 30, 2012

Microbe project tests new funding source


By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt / ASAS Communications

Scientists want to know about the zoo inside you.

Researchers with the new American Gut Project plan to sequence the rRNA of bacteria found in skin swabs, saliva and stool samples. They want see how the microbiome differs between people like couch potatoes and marathon runners, dog owners and equestrians.

The researchers also plan to collect samples from pets and other animals. By analyzing gut microbes, they might spot interactions between animal genetics, diet and environment.

“We need a massive sample,” said Jeff Leach, dietary researcher and founder of the American Gut Project.

Leach hopes for a least 10,000 human samples. This number would make the American Gut Project the largest microbiome study in history. To reach this goal, Leach and his team are bypassing traditional sources of funding and data.

Paying the bills

Leach and his team are not relying on funding sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation. Instead, they are using is a “crowd funding” site. Visitors choose different levels of support for the American Gut Project. Visitors who donate $99 will get a kit for collecting their own sample. They can donate more to send in more samples. There is even a “Week of Feces” option where donors can send in seven samples.

“We can take the project right to the people,” said Leach. “We are showing a way forward to fund off-the-wall or unique projects.”

Donating money is a simple concept, but crowd funding can get tricky. The American Gut Project needs at least $400,000 to analyze the number of samples they expect to get. The researchers also need to raise the money before Jan. 7, 2013. If they do not raise the full amount before this deadline, the project will not be funded and donors will get their contributions back.

This all-or-nothing approach depends on public support. Leach and his team have to be able to explain their work to a non-scientific public. To do this, they have reached out to media outlets and created a site with special graphics. Leach expects the project to be fully funded. As of Nov. 30, the project was only 4 percent funded.

Asking for donations brings up another concern: Will the sample be skewed? After all, they will be missing samples from people without $99 to pay for a kit.

Leach says the sample will be skewed, but the team is making efforts to get a wide data set. At least 200 samples will be collected from volunteers who did not donate. Those costs will be covered by donated funds. Leach also hopes to collect samples from at least 100 volunteers living in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

“Citizen science” heads to the lab

The American Gut Project is not the first large microbiome study. In 2008, NIH launched the Human Microbiome Project. However, the data in the Human Microbiome Project represent just a sliver of the American population. The main data set came from 300 participants. Most participants were healthy, college-age medical students.

The use of “citizen science” makes the American Gut Project different. Citizen science is the growing trend of collecting data from non-scientists in the community. Past citizen science projects include arthropod surveys and studies of whale calls.

What happens with the kits? Click to view the graphic from the American Gut Project

Instead of collecting samples from a pre-screened population, the American Gut Project researchers will analyze samples from anyone willing to participate. After receiving the kit, participants will take a skin swab or collect a saliva or stool sample.

The kit also includes a survey. Participants will answer questions about their diet, fitness, health and environment. They will also answer questions about animals around them. Leach wonders if pets, livestock and other animals also affect the human gut microbiome.

Participants will then mail the kit back for analysis. After analysis, participants will receive a report comparing their microbiome with the rest of the population.

Leach said this broad sampling will help researchers spot important trends. For example, Leach said it would be interesting to see samples from people with conditions like Crohn’s disease.

Using non-scientists to collect samples does come with a risk. Participants could mix up samples or fib on the survey. However, Leach said the size of the population sampled should drown out any “noise” from misreporting.

Testing our animals

The second part of this project is all about animal science.

Kelly Swanson, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, is part of the team that will analyze and interpret the results of the animal samples.

Swanson said new data could help animal researchers apply existing science. For example, scientists know that certain dog breeds are more susceptible to certain diseases. Swanson wonders if the microbiome differs between these dog breeds. By comparing microbes found in different breeds, he may be closer to an answer. Swanson said many of the studies that have been done focus on just a few breeds living in sterile lab conditions.

Studying everyday pets could also help researchers better understand widespread conditions like pet obesity.

“Nearly half the pets out there are overweight,” said Swanson.

Swanson wonders if microbes play a role in pet obesity. Because microbes can affect digestion and nutrient absorption, Swanson said samples of the pet microbiome could help researchers understand how pets harvest energy from their food. This information could lead to healthier pet diets.

The “citizen science” survey could also help Swanson understand how pet gender, neuter status and past antibiotic use affect pet health.

“We are still learning a lot about what goes on in the gut,” said Swanson.

Learn more about the American Gut Project

Learn about the Innovate 2012 conference on research funding

Banner photo provided by Jeff Leach