Any day now, I’m going to get lab results I’ve been waiting months to know. They will tell me something about my deep insides. These will be maps of thousands and thousands of microbes that live inside my gut and in my house.
But just like some ancient relics pulled from tombs of lost civilizations, nobody knows exactly how to read these maps yet. I’ll get the names of my microbes and the sequences of their DNA, but I won’t know exactly what the maps mean.
For more than a year, I’ve been part of two different citizen science programs. Both are aimed at understanding more about our health and the myriad ways we are tethered to the health of the microscopic creatures that share our homes and our bodies. One project sampled my body and the other my home.
While much of these projects happens via computers and online interactions, it began in a face-to-face encounter that I had with scientist and author Rob Dunn. I was on a field trip as part of a meeting of the National Association of Science Writers at the University of North Carolina. During one stop, Dunn pinned me as tightly as an insect sample to styrofoam display while he talked about microbes. Science knows more about exotic environments from mountains to the sea floor, but little about the “wild life” inside our homes. He launched a project to collect samples from every state and try to find patterns of meaning there. I sent in my samples to The Wild Life of Our Homes. More than one thousand other people joined me.
Wild Life sent detailed instructions for me. They wanted samples of dust from different parts of my house. They wanted dust that had not been disturbed for a while, so one sample location was the upper sill above a doorway. The other project, Ubiome, asked me to mail in a sample of feces. The two projects are separate, but both are measuring microbiomes associated with me. Both have promised results soon.
Researchers have found intriguing differences between microbiomes. To give one example, people with diabetes have different microbial percentages than people who don’t have diabetes. Obese mice (and perhaps people) have different organisms in their gut than non-obese mice. A subset of children with autism seem to have differences from children without the diagnosis, and more mouse research suggests that changing the gut may change the behavior of the mice. Lots of speculation, but very little research that would prove causation.
If you will be in Seattle in February, join me and Scott Meschke to talk about microbiomes. What might I learn from mine? What might we all learn collectively from thousands of samples?
If you are new to these ideas, enjoy an animator’s vision of what it all might mean, courtesy of National Public Radio.
Image above used with permission of the Pacific Northwest National Labs. Taken by Janine Hutchison. Green is lactobacillus reuteri, purple is collagen microsphere, and brown is intestinal cell.