A new study of the human microbiome – the trillions of microbial organisms that live on and within our bodies-has analyzed thousands of new measurements of microbial communities from the gut, skin, mouth, and vaginal microbiome, yielding new insights into the role these microbes play in human health.
The study, from researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and University of Maryland School of Medicine, presents a three-fold expansion of data from the National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project, providing unprecedented depth and detail about human microbial diversity.
The new information allows researchers to identify differences that are unique to an individual’s microbes-just like some human genome variants are unique to each individual-and track them across the body and over time.
This study is an expanded second phase of the Human Microbiome Project, originally launched in 2007 to identify and characterize human microbes, explore microbes’ relationship to health and disease, and develop computational tools to analyze the microbes. The microbiome has been linked to everything from allergies to cancer.
The findings: Provide one of the largest profiles of non-bacterial members-viruses and fungi-of the microbiome across the body Identified microbes with specific strains within each body site Profile the biochemical activity that allows microbes to help maintain human health Identify how the microbes and their biochemistry change over time Huttenhower said the new study also emphasizes how much scientists still don’t know about the makeup and function of the human microbiome.
“Just as sequencing one human genome, without information about variability or context, didn’t immediately lead to extensive new drugs or therapies, so too will we need to look at the microbiome with an extremely fine lens, in many different contexts, so that we can understand and act on its specific, personalized changes in any individual disease or condition,” said Jason Lloyd-Price, postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School, and lead author of the study.