Rethinking Healthcare

MyMicrobes: social network connects us through gut bacteria

Posting in Science

The new online project wants to gather DNA data by offering to sequence our gut bacteria from fecal samples. And you can find people with similar gastrointestinal profiles.

Get connected… based on similar microbial profiles!

Part social network, part DNA database, MyMicrobes is a nonprofit program that’s been inviting people to have their gastrointestinal bacteria sequenced. For $2,100.

The website also offers a place for people around the world to share health and diet tips, stories, and other fun digestive experiences or anguish with one another. And in exchange, researchers hope to gather heaps of data about the bacteria living in people's guts. Nature News reports.

Earlier this year, the same researchers showed that people fall into one of three groups, or 'enterotypes', when it comes to the genetics of their gut bacteria:

  1. Bacteroides are known to be good at breaking down carbohydrates, so it's possible that people of this type might struggle more with obesity.
  2. Prevotella tend to degrade slimy mucus in the gut, which could conceivably increase gut pain.
  3. And some Ruminococcus help cells to absorb sugars, which might contribute to weight gain.

"I got between 50 and 100 emails from regular people having problems with the stomach or diarrhea and wondering if we can help them," says study coauthor Peer Bork from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. "They were long e-mails. There must be a lot of frustrated people out there." Thus MyMicrobes was conceived.

So far, certain gut-specific genetic markers have been linked to obesity and other diseases. Gut types might affect how people react to different drugs and diets, but there’s no proven link between gut types and disease remedies.

After registering on the site, you’ll receive a stool-sample kit. You mail the fecal sample to a lab in Paris to have DNA extracted. Then it gets sent to Bork’s lab for sequencing. You’ll have access to your own data, but all public results will be anonymous.

It's pricey compared to the $207 to have your genome sequenced by 23andMe. The difference is partly due to the size of the bacterial genome, which contains around 5 billion letters of DNA – compared to the 3.3 billion in ours.

For the site and the study to be meaningful, they’d like to have at least 5,000 participants. "It requires a critical number of participants,” says Bork. “Just like competitors of Facebook, we might fail to get that critical mass." (At time of posting, there are 124 participants.)

The project launched last week. Via Nature.

Image: MyMicrobes

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure