The Seven Stones

A Human Microbiome Project?

(via Jonathan A. Eisen, The Tree of Life)

What are the areas that will deeply transform biomedical research over the next decade? One of the possible areas identified for inclusion in the NIH Roadmap is research on the Microbiome (the entire set of microbial species living in the human body). A string of recent studies have revealed a profound impact of the enormously complex mammalian microbiome (Gill et al, 2006) on the metabolism and immune status of the host (for a few examples: Backhed et al, 2004, Dumas et al, 2006, Turnbaugh et al, 2006, Kitano & Oda, 2006, Nicholson et al, 2005). In his blog, J Eisen reports on some of the discussions held at an NIH sponsored workshop on the necessity of a Human Microbiome Project and lists possible research avenues for such a program. From his post:

1. Sequence many “reference genomes.” By reference genomes here I mean genomes of cultured isolates that are closely related to organisms known in various human locations.

2. Do metagenomic sequencing of a variety of human mirobiome samples.

3. Conduct large scale human microbiome diversity studies. This could involve rRNA PCR surveys as well as some amount of genome sequencing.

4. Develop the computational tools needed to analyze the massive amounts of data that will come out.

5. Encourage the development of new methods to aid in studies of the microbiome.

Perhaps one would like to add that an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between host and microbiome will also require the development of experimental approaches to manipulate the microbiome and measure its impact on the host physiology.

A friend of mine asked me recently what field might strike the popular consciousness in the coming years. Could it be that it will be the realization that we are all “superorganisms” (Lederberg, 2000) and that our health does not only depend on our personal genome (Church 2005) and our environment, but also on the extended genome provided by our very private microbiome?


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