The Human Microbiome Project
You may have heard of the Human Genome Project (HGP), but have you heard of the Human Microbiome Project (HMP or Project)? The HGP, as profound as it is, left us wanting, and needing, more information regarding health. In 2008, five years after the Genome Project was concluded, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) set out to create their next big project; the HMP. What is it and why should we care?
What is the Human Microbiome Project?
In the previous article I mentioned the Project, but did not go into any details. I thought it would be helpful to give you some background on this as a way to further impress upon you the significance of the human microbiome and its relationship to health.
According to the NIH, the NIH Common Fund Human Microbiome Project was established in 2008, with the mission of generating resources that would enable the comprehensive characterization of the human microbiome and analysis of its role in human health and disease.1
One of the goals of the Project was to get a picture of how many microbial genome sequences are present on/in the human body and their complexity. With the understanding that we are so much more than human cells, the NIH set out to explore this human metagenome: the ecosystem that embodies our existence. The Project is a consortium that pools ongoing research from all over to create a sort of mega project. The ultimate objective of the Project was to find correlations between patterns in microbiome populations and specific diseases, with the goal of finding ways to manipulate, or change, the microbiome.
You may have heard of fecal implants (also called bacteriotherapy) and thought, that’s pretty gross. But in the past few years there has been successful manipulation of the human microbiome by transplanting stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of someone suffering from diseases like C. dificile colitis (C. diff.) and ulcerative colitis. C. diff. is a complication of antibiotic therapy. Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The problem, as I see it, is finding a healthy enough donor as so many people suffer from gastrointestinal disorders. The point is more in the outcome though: the ability to effectively treat a condition by going straight to the microbiome. This technique appears to be more effective at repopulating the microbiome quickly, unlike probiotics that can bring uncertainty in both strain and potency, as well as their ability to survive the intestinal journey from the mouth to the large intestine. Finding the right probiotic off the shelf for a specific condition would be maddening.
There have been five sites on the body that have been the focus of the research: nasal passages, mouth, skin, gastrointestinal tract and the urogenital tract.
What was Studied?
With the five sites in mind, fifteen different projects were initially created to demonstrate hypothesized correlations between the microbiome and human health and disease (2). These projects were studies of relationships between microbiome and specific conditions. For example, one project looked at the skin microbiome and psoriasis. Another looked at the state of the gut microbiome and Chrohn’s disease. There were actually three projects dedicated to Chrohn’s disease. Yet another project looked at esophageal cancer and the microbiome of the esophagus.
Other studies looked at healthy individuals in order to compare microbiome populations to see which microbiota was found most commonly across the subjects being studied, in the areas of the body being tested.
What was Found?
A ton of information was gathered from all of the research done so far. This article is not meant to sum it all up, but to give you an idea of the significance of what was found in order that you may have a greater awareness of the importance gut health plays in overall health.
For example, according to one report of data collected, studies of adult female twins and their mothers found that obesity was associated with changes in the gut microbiota and reduced bacterial diversity. They also found low microbiome diversity in the gut has been associated with inflammatory bowel disease. They found composition of the vaginal microbiota in reproductive-aged women is affected by several host factors, including age, menarche, sexual activity, pregnancy, and exogenous exposures such as contraceptives; and at this body site, greater microbial diversity has been associated with bacterial vaginosis.
Another study questions a direct link between gut microbiome and obesity, or at the very least, questions the simplicity of the findings that they are linked. This study concluded that further and more detailed and expanded research is needed to get to a difference that quite possibly may exist. What?? My read on it is we are still in the infancy of learning how the microbiome impacts specific health outcomes. And with our microbiome comprising 90% of our genetic makeup, I’m guessing it’s going to take a while before we map out the 90% as compared to the 10% of our (human) genes involved in the human genome project.
For now, suffice it to say that a healthy gut can make a world of difference in your overall health. And it looks like a diverse gut microbiome supports greater health than a depleted microbiome. It’s a starting point to get us going in the right direction. I have been working on my gut health for a while now, tweaking things here and there. But what I’ve accomplished is personal to my gut. Since we all have different microbiomes and different health issues, our paths to healing our guts is unique to each one of us. With that said, stay tuned as we learn more about gut health and its link to so many different health issues.
Yours in Wellness,
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