Fecesbook: Social Network for Gut Bacteria?

Sep 15, 2011 10:27am

Finally, you can share the status of your gut bacteria with your friends.

In exchange for $2,100 and a bit of poop, My.Microbes will sequence your gut microbiome, the genetic blueprints for the throng of organisms lining your digestive tract.

If it sounds like a crappy deal, consider this: On top of collecting piles of data for scientists studying gut diseases and obesity, the site promises to connect users with similar gut microbiomes to share digestive woes and diet tips. Whether users will personally benefit from participating, however, remains unclear. The website also encourages non-participants to donate money.

The hefty fee covers the cost of shipping the stool sample kit and the gene sequencing process. But other gene sequencing services, such as 23andMe, cost a fraction of My.Microbes’ price tag. That, My.Microbes creator Peer Bork told Nature, is because the gut microbiome contains around 5 billion letters of DNA, more than 2 billion more than the human genome.

Bork, a biochemist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, is one of many researchers who think the gut microbiome will unlock a new world of health information. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project, a “logical conceptual and experimental extension of the Human Genome Project,” according to a 2007 report in Nature.

“The HMP will address some of the most inspiring, vexing and fundamental scientific questions today,” the report authors wrote. “It is hoped that the HMP will not only identify new ways to determine health and predisposition to diseases but also define the parameters needed to design, implement and monitor strategies for intentionally manipulating the human microbiota, to optimize its performance in the context of an individual’s physiology.”

One day, the gut microbiome could help guide treatments for various diseases just as the human genome has personalized some cancer therapies. For MyMicrobes to generate a meaningful heap of data, it will need about 5,000 participants. As of Thursday morning, it had 134, but not all of them have committed to the fee.

“It requires a critical number of participants,” Bork told Nature. “Just like competitors of Facebook, we might fail to get that critical mass.”

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