Research Update: The Human Gut Microbiome Initiative

As part of $3K in 3 Weeks, here is the first in a series of articles on current research initiatives related to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Future IBD ResearcherThe Human Gut Microbiome Initiative, based at the Genome Center of Washington University in St. Louis,1 is the first major investigation into the thousands of species of bacteria that live in the human digestive system.

What’s a microbiome? The “microbiome” is defined as all bacteria in the human body, as well as all the products they make. To put this in perspective, scientists estimate that as much as 90% of the cells in the human body are actually bacteria.2 In the past, since most of the species of bacteria found in the human body could not be cultured (grown outside the body for study), we’ve been essentially clueless about how those bacteria functioned and their potential role in the human body.

Using research methods developed as part of molecular biology and genetics, it is now possible to study those “unculturable” bacteria.

The Human Gut Microbiome Initiative is doing exactly that — applying molecular methods to study the thousands of bacteria that make up the human microbiome. The primary goal is to uncover how those bacteria interact with a genetically-susceptible human host and their subsequent role in the development of Crohn’s and colitis. The initiative has been underway for about 18 months.

Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA)3 Chief Scientific Advisor R. Balfour Sartor, MD recently4 provided an update on the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative. According to Dr. Sartor, here is what we have learned thus far from the microbiome initiative:

  • There is a familial influence on microbial composition. The particular mix of microbial species in you gut is more likely to resemble your parents microbial mix than the microbial mix of a stranger.5
  • Bacterial function is more important than species. In other words, what a particular bacteria does in your gut is ultimately more important that what species it is.
  • Diet changes bacterial composition and function.6

Dr. Sator also stressed that the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative has resulted in a “quantum leap in available tools” which researchers can now use in other studies. One of the goals of the microbiome initiative is in fact “to develop labor- and cost-effective tools and the framework to enable more scientists to study IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease)“7

Moving forward, the  Human Gut Microbiome Initiative researchers are studying identical and non-identical twin pairs (with and without IBD) to further understand the roles of bacteria, genetics and environment in the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Additional Articles

This article is part of the $3K in 3 Weeks initiative. Click to view all of the $3K in 3 Weeks articles.

  • Coming up next in the $3K in 3 Weeks article series: The Ocean State Crohn’s and Colitis Registry (OSCCAR).
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About Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, known collectively as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), are painful, medically incurable digestive diseases. Approximately 1.4 million Americans are afflicted, including over 140,000 children. Most often striking young adults, IBD exacts a heavy toll in acute care, and can often involve multiple surgeries, hospitalizations, and in rare cases, untimely death. Although we have made significant progress in treating Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in recent years, we do not yet have cures or means of prevention.

—Excerpted from Voices of Progress, CCFA Annual Report 2008

  1. The Human Gut Microbiome Initiative is under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey I. Gordon of Washington University, a gastroenterologist and Director of the Center for Genome Sciences, and Dr. Rob Knight, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Colorado, an expert in bioinformatics. []
  2. That’s not a typo! For every traditional human cell in you, there are nine bacteria cells. []
  3. CCFA is in its second year of funding the Human Gut Microbiome Initiative. []
  4. Dr. Balfour’s update was part of a presentation at the CCFA Volunteer Leadership Conference in Altanta on October 23, 2009. []
  5. One key question that occurs to me is how much of that familial similarity in microbial composition is due to genetics, and how much is due to shared environment. []
  6. This seems like one of those common sense ideas which — after we discover it — we think, “of course.” []
  7. Voices of Progress, CCFA Annual Report 2008 []

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