Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Human Microbiome Project

The same friend who told me about outsourcing health care told me about a fascinating research project that he is working on as an employee of a bio-tech company on the East Coast.

You've heard of the Human Genome Project which catelouges all the genes in the human species. This is a little different: they are looking at all the organisms that live in the human species.

The average human body, consisting of about 10 to the thirteen power (10,000,000,000,000 or about ten trillion) cells, has about ten times that number of microorganisms in the gut. Somewhere between 300 and 1000 different species live in the gut,[3] with most estimates at about 500. These microorganisms are helpful the human existence: the microorganisms perform a host of useful functions, such as fermenting unused energy substrates, training the immune system, preventing growth of harmful species, regulating the development of the gut, producing vitamins for the host (such as biotin and vitamin K), and producing hormones to direct the host to store fats. However, in certain conditions, some species are thought to be capable of causing disease by causing infection or increasing cancer risk for the host.(see references on

The Human MicroBiome Project is trying to figure out what all of those microorganisms are, just as the Human Genome Project sought to determine all of the genes in our genome.

The process is not a pleasant one, definitely a study I would not sign up for. Participants are given a strong antibiotic that kills all of the microorganisms living in the digestive tract, and then they are asked to collect stool samples over the next weeks as the flora repopulate in the gut. Then the lucky lab techs get to analyze the stool samples.

Many holistic oriented, health conscious people, especially mothers, are aware of the importance of maintaining healthy intestinal flora for proper immune and health functioning. The Human Microbiome Project has the potential to make that information for well-known and accessible to the public, providing evidence for the importance of microorganisms in association with health and disease with applications across the medical and healthcare fields.

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