Thanks to Sam Worley and GE Reports for your interest in our effort to protect and characterize the human gut microbial biodiversity! And thanks for nominating us the third coolest things on earth this week!
What is it? Perhaps you’ve heard of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where scientists wanting to protect plant biodiversity and plan against future disaster keep a huge bank of seeds snuggled into the Norwegian permafrost. Another set of scientists — who probably wash their hands more often — are doing a similar kind of thing, but with human feces.
Why does it matter? The Global Microbiome Conservancy was founded in 2016 by several MIT microbiologists who observed that, as traditional societies around the world increasingly adapt their diets to Western influence (processed foods, antibiotics), we’re seeing in a decline in the diversity of human microbiomes — the rich worlds of bacteria in our guts. That decline, in turn, presents a health threat; a few studies have found an absence of certain diseases in societies with diverse gut microbiota. The microbiologists set out to rectify this loss by gathering a diverse worldwide collection of human microbiomes, best accomplished via fecal sampling. As GMC co-founder Eric Alm told Science magazine, the microbes could help scientists find treatments for both gut diseases and other health problems like asthma and obesity: “I’m 100% confident that there are relevant medical applications for hundreds of strains we’ve screened and characterized.”
How does it work? The, uh, old-fashioned way. Researchers travel the world asking people to do their business in an assigned bowl, whence the samples are divided into groups: some to be dried and DNA-sequenced, others to be shipped frozen back to Cambridge, where discrete bacterial strains can be isolated. Already MIT scientists have uncovered 55 previously unknown genera of bacteria from 4,000 strains collected from Africa and the Arctic. On the other hand, genetic collection of this sort may pose ethical challenges, which the Science article explores.