Scientists seek help in learning about digestive microbes

Wonder what sort of effect that leftover turkey, gravy, sausage stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwich followed by a slice of pumpkin pie lathered in whipped cream had on your gastrointestinal tract?

What about the half-finished turkey leg you slipped to the dog under the table? What did that do to Fido's digestive health?

A team of scientists from around the U.S. have launched an expansive research study that aims to understand the ecosystem that resides within our guts. Called the American Gut Project, it will attempt to map the microbial diversity of Americans and their pets. The project relies on crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to answer questions such as: how does diet and environment influence the makeup of the microbiotic community within the American gut? Does a vegetarian diet produce a different microbiome (the community of microorganisms in you) than say a paleo — hunter-gatherer — diet?

Researchers are seeking donors from a cross-section of America — people living in the city, the country, the suburbs, people who run marathons and those who only watch them on T.V.

"We're interested in the guy at the end of the cul-de-sac, people who are on a gluten-free diet, those on Weight Watchers," and many others who follow a variety of different eating and lifestyle habits, said Jeff Leach, the New Orleans-based co-founder of American Gut Project and founder of the Human Food Project. They're also interested in children and pets.

Scientists from several universities around the country, including University of Illinois animal sciences Professor Kelly Swanson, are involved in this open-access, citizen science-type of project. (Peer-reviewed research also is expected to be generated from it.)

The project essentially follows a $173 million project funded by the National Institutes of Health called the Human Microbiome Project which looked closely at the community of microorganisms in the guts of a few hundred selected individuals.

"That was like it should be — a well-controlled study," said Swanson. It involved mostly medical students, educated people who are fairly well-off socioeconomically.

"The next step is to move it to the real world and involve many more people." Swanson said.

Like 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 more.

Swanson's nutritional studies have involved humans, dogs and cats. Often companies will ask researchers to investigate ingredients or products, but much of that work involves protecting the company's intellectual property. Data from the American Gut Project will be open-source, he said. (Personal data is kept confidential; protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Colorado, where the samples are analyzed.)

"This project truly brings together a dream team of microbiome investigators," said Rob Knight, professor at the University of Colorado's BioFrontiers Institute and co-founder of American Gut in a statement. "And building a framework where we can join together to understand the microbiome is critical," he said.

The gut microbiome has been linked to obesity, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and other diseases that are more common in Western populations than elsewhere in the world, according to Knight.

The traditional model for obtaining research funding involves applying for grants from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation or doing work for corporations.

The American Gut Project embraces a new model. Scientists are seeking not only donors but participants to support the project via kickstarter.com, the website devoted to crowdsourcing projects like movies, video games, products and more.

For example, for $99, participants receive a kit used to collect a stool, skin or oral sample. They also fill out a detailed questionnaire about their diet and lifestyle. In return to sending it to the University of Colorado, participants receive a report on which bacteria and archaea are present and how much.

"I think the microbiome in particular lends itself well to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding," Leach said. Other citizen science projects have involved people counting birds or tracking stars.

Peer-reviewed research will come out of the American Gut Project, but Leach also hopes a series of conversations about diet, lifestyle and related issues also emerges.

"Food and the knowledge of what we eat and the right to know about what we eat is the Civil Rights movement of this generation," he said.

On the web:

http://www.indiegogo.com/americangut

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