AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Bush
The term Citizen Scientist is relatively new and applies to people who participate in data collection for scientific projects but who are not scientific experts themselves. In many cases, these projects require collecting data from many sample sites or from remote locations around the globe. Engaging Citizen Scientists allows this information to be collected at little or no cost, which can be a huge benefit to the research projects. In return, they have the opportunity to participate in the research process, an exciting role previously reserved for highly trained specialists. Some projects will even reward participants by analyzing their personal data and returning a report.
Such is the case with the American Gut Project.
Launched by Dr. Rob Knight and Dr. Jeff Leach in 2013 with the support of a crowd funding platform, the American Gut Project relies on Citizen Scientists to help generate a library of information relating to the gut microbiome. Advanced DNA sequencing technology uses differences in the genetic code to identify and quantify bacteria species on sample swabs, which are collected and submitted by Citizen Scientists. In return, a report is produced for each sample, which characterizes the abundance of prominent bacteria species and shows how the distribution of bacteria types compare to other samples.
What does the report say about your health? Well, remember that scientists don’t yet know what the ideal healthy microbiome looks like, so the data can be difficult to interpret in this sense. However, certain groups of bacteria are associated with health benefits (such as Bifidobacteria), while others (like enteropathogenic E. coli) are known to produce harmful toxins. While submitting a sample to the American Gut Project may be an ineffective way in which to diagnose Traveler’s diarrhea, it may be helpful to see how plentiful and diverse your healthy gut bacteria are.
Further, the American Gut Project now offers intriguing new opportunities (under ‘Perks’ on their fundraising site) for Citizen Scientists to experiment on themselves. For example, the aptly titled ‘Week of Feces’ perk lets a person submit 7 different samples. Using this kit, you could study how your microbiome changes following a dietary adjustment or if taking probiotic supplements affects your microbiome. It could also be used to measure the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects of prebiotic supplementation.
The American Gut Project offers a rare opportunity to combine Citizen Science with Personalized Health initiatives. Participants are not only helping to advance our understanding of the gut microbiome but also have the chance to learn how their individual choices are shaping their inner ecosystem.