Sequencing the human microbiome

An adult body carries four to five pounds of bacteria, and many of them are good bacteria that keep you healthy. Now scientists are trying to get a snapshot of what that healthy human microbiomes look like. If they succeed, we could get a deeper insight into how to live disease-free. The New York Times has an article on what they’re finding and how they’re doing it:

Researchers have taken a detailed look at … the 100 trillion good bacteria that live in or on the human body.

No one really knew much about them. They are essential for human life, needed to digest food, to synthesize certain vitamins, to form a barricade against disease-causing bacteria. But what do they look like in healthy people, and how much do they vary from person to person?

In a new five-year federal endeavor, the Human Microbiome Project, which has been compared to the Human Genome Project, 200 scientists at 80 institutions sequenced the genetic material of bacteria taken from nearly 250 healthy people.

They discovered more strains than they had ever imagined — as many as a thousand bacterial strains on each person. And each person’s collection of microbes, the microbiome, was different from the next person’s.

It sounds like this will be even more complicated than sequencing the human genome, but it will be a great baseline from which we can start to understand how all these microbes we carry around keep us alive.

I particularly like this bit:

Humans, said Dr. David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist, are like coral, “an assemblage of life-forms living together.”

Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, who was not involved with the research project, had another image. Humans, he said, in some sense are made mostly of microbes. From the standpoint of our microbiome, he added, “we may just serve as packaging.”

People are like planets, brought to life by all the critters living on them.

Here are two articles in Nature, one about the study and one about the diversity of the human microbiome.



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