Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

My bacteria and yours – telling stories

Small pictures of the microbes growing in my own gut, and in my own house, are filling my mind with questions.

Why do I have a higher percentage of a bacteria family called Firmicutes than other people? Why did my house have a higher percentage of plant-based material on our door sill than the other houses?

If you are hoping for a satisfying dramatic conclusion to this detective story, you will have to wait. Two different teams of scientists are both asking a fundamental biologic question using some samples from me and my house.  I’m a contributor to both Ubiome and The Wild Life of our Homes. Both teams returned some results to me, but not in their final form.

Join me in Seattle Tuesday, Feb. 25, for a discussion of this with scientist Scott Meschke.

As you can see from the illustration at the top, I’ve been given the chance to test a beta version of the dashboard that will eventually be available to all the participants in the Ubiome experiment. I can compare my own percentages to others in a graph or in other formats. As you can read in an earlier post, I sent a sample of feces to them in 2013. They sequenced the DNA of all the microbes they could find in that sample.

If you are new to the idea of the microbiome, you can see a very clever video about this that explains some of the complex symbiotic relationship with the microbes of our bodies. We need many of them to digest our food, to protect us from other microbes and perhaps, in some cases, to regulate some of our own body processes.

But before you get too excited about all the ways that scientists are studying our microbiomes, remember that the science of understanding exactly what is “normal” for any one person at any one time of their life is pretty primitive.

Scientists in recent years have investigated brain-gut interactions suggesting that mood swings and autistic behavior could be related to the microbiome. Just last week, a study was published about whether geographic variation in obesity is related to the percentage of bacteria known as Firmicutes.

What’s going on now is almost like Darwin sailing off to the Galapagos Islands and trying to catalog everything he found there.  Rob Dunn is the principal investigator on the Wild Life project, which has sampled 1,600 homes in the United States. We are creatures who spend most of our life indoors, but we don’t know much about what lives with us in those indoor spaces. In a similar way, those who are sampling the gut want to establish what species are there, in what relative numbers, and how this differs from person to person.

“It is fundamentally amazing,” Dunn told me during a phone interview. But it may take 10 years, he said, before the reasons and systems behind the microbiomes are better understood. “There are so many threads to pull,” he said.

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