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American Gut Project explores our bodies' microbiomes

UC San Diego Health

The first major results are in from the American Gut Project. It’s a citizen science project to get a better understanding of the microbial communities inside our bodies.

People pay $99 to send in a sample – a swab from their hands, their mouth, or a stool sample.

Daniel McDonald is the project’s scientific director at the University of California-San Diego.

“So it turns out that most of the people sending us samples tend to send us fecal samples. We think it must just be the sexy thing to do,” he says. “But I think a lot of individuals are sending us these samples because they’re curious to learn a little bit more about these organisms that are important for your health that we are just beginning to understand in the scientific community.”

He says one of the most interesting findings so far is that it appears the number of fruits and vegetables you eat can affect your microbiome.

They asked people to self report how many plants they eat each week: from zero to more than 30.

“What we found is individuals on these extremes of the plant diversity in their diet looked really different from a microbial diversity perspective,” says McDonald.

He says they also looked at small molecules in the samples.

“Small molecules are really quite interesting because this is the communication that happens between the individual cells that are in your microbiome, or between the cells and you – your actual host cells,” he says.

“These microbes appear to be – in the individuals who eat quite a few plants – performing some different types of metabolism and producing some different molecules that in other contexts have beneficial health properties, such as being anti-inflammatory.”

McDonald says researchers in the microbiome field have recognized that different populations of people have different microbial communities.

“What this really means is that if all of microbiome research is focused on one population – say people in the U.S. – we don’t know how to translate those results to people in different places,” he says. “So what I’m really hoping to do going forward is find mechanisms to foster the ability for people all over the world to take part in this project so that we can begin to explore how to translate results from one population to another.”

Reporter Rob Stein explored his own gut microbiome for NPR (and reported on questions around privacy issues raised by sending in samples of your gut microbes).

You can listen to the interview with Daniel McDonald above.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.