It doesn’t sound very enjoyable, but 18,000 of your fellow citizens have signed up to participate in the American Gut Project ̶̶ before it has even started.
Researchers at universities around country will be recruiting large numbers of people to contribute samples of the microbes that live in their intestines. The goal of the project is to collect a large database of information about these bugs, and they will use genome sequencing to differentiate and identify hundreds of different species.
With the advent of microprocessors in the 1990’s, computers were able to handle massive amounts of information. This allowed scientists to take a small peice of DNA and map the entire genetic code of an organism in a process called genome sequencing. In the last decade, improvements in the technology behind this process have made it more accessible and less expensive, and a whole new branch of biomedical research has resulted: The study of the microbial community in a human intestine.
In the intestines, billions and billions of microbes, with colorful names like Bifidobacterium infantis and Lactobacillus acidophilus, live and function in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and with your own cells. Many of the critters that live in your gut cannot be grown in a laboratory test tube so their function, or even their existence, was unknown before genome sequencing. Now that scientists know what is there, they are discovering how important these bugs are in digesting our food, building our immune systems, maintaining stable glucose levels, and other jobs that are critically important to good health.
At the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Natalia Shulzhenko is working on the frontier of this new science. Trained as a medical doctor, Shulzhenko became interested in the bugs that inhabit the gut while working at the National Institute of Health. One of her projects discovered a three-way interaction, or crosstalk, between the immune system, the intestinal lining, and intestinal bugs. When this communication was disrupted in mice, it led to poor absorption of fats and malnutrition. “We realized that what happens in the gut is not only about our own cells but about the microbes that live there. They have huge powers,” she says.