SAN DIEGO—Researchers at the school of medicine at University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) recently noted that they are expanding the American Gut Project into Asia. The goal of American Gut, the world’s largest crowdfunded citizen science project, is to sequence as many human microbiomes—the unique collection of bacteria and other microbes that live in and on us—as possible.
American Gut Project participants are “citizen scientists.” They learn how many of which types of bacteria inhabit their bodies, and in doing so also contribute valuable data to researchers around the world who want to know how microbiomes influence human and environmental health.
“We’re excited to engage with more participants outside the U.S., Australia and the U.K. because we’re finding that, thanks to differences in diet, lifestyle and environment, the country you live in may greatly influence the microbial makeup of your gut and other body sites,” said Dr. Embriette Hyde, assistant project scientist and project manager of American Gut in the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
The American Gut Project was co-founded by Dr. Rob Knight, professor of pediatrics and computer science and engineering and director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego. American Gut, British Gut, Australian Gut and now Asian Gut are part of the Earth Microbiome Project, a massive effort to analyze microbial communities across the globe. The American Gut Project is also a participant in the White House’s newly created National Microbiome Initiative.
Previously, the American Gut Project could technically accept samples provided by participants anywhere in the world. But logistics were another matter. The costs to ship out a single sampling kit and then for the participant to ship it back to San Diego were prohibitive.
That’s when Scott Savage, an operations manager, and his wife, Louise Savage, a microbiologist, offered to help. The couple lives in Singapore and they have volunteered to run a local aggregation site for the American Gut Project, under the name Asian Gut. This means they will store American Gut sampling kits locally, mail them to participants in Singapore and throughout Asia, collect and store returned samples in a freezer, and then ship the kits back to San Diego in bulk. These are the same logistics as those followed in the U.K. (British Gut) and Australia (Australian Gut), which served as blueprint aggregation sites for this newest venture.
According to Hyde, one reason the team is particularly interested in getting more microbial data from Asian participants is because people in Asian countries tend to eat more fermented food than people in Western countries. In a recent pilot study, Hyde and team found that people who make and eat more fermented foods had greater species diversity in their gut microbiomes than non-fermenters.
“Lots of people around the world are getting excited about microbiomes and what their makeup might mean for our health, and although the research is still in its infancy, many people want to make microbiome information actionable,” Hyde said. “We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse, though. For example, researchers in Israel created an algorithm to help you determine what you should or shouldn’t eat based on your microbiome. It was an elegant study, but that work was only done in a very narrow population of people who live in Israel. We don’t know yet if that’s applicable to other populations. That’s why we need to expand our microbiome data collection efforts into Asia and other regions of the world.”