Research 4 min read

Gut Check: I Got My Microbiome Analyzed, And So Can You

By Jeanette McCarthy, MPH, PhD

Yesterday I received a really geeky gift in the mail. I had been expecting it, but I didn’t recognize it when it came in a cardboard poster mailing tube. When I unfurled the colorful print inside and saw my name across the top, I have to admit I felt a little rush. My gut microbiome results had arrived!

I first became intrigued with human-microbe relationships four years ago when I read a study that described a serendipitous finding by researchers studying bacteria that lived in the ocean on seaweed. While studying the genomes of these bacteria, not surprisingly they found some bacterial genes that were helping these microbes digest seaweed. What was surprising was that these genes could also be found in the gut microbes of humans — but not all humans, just the Japanese! It turns out that over time, as the seaweed-dwelling microbes made their way into the human gut via sushi, some of them mingled with the local residents and swapped genes, giving the gut residents a new superpower: enhanced digestion of seaweed.

Stories like this, as well as new research linking gut microbes to diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, captured my imagination. That’s why when I heard about the American Gut Project, I jumped at the opportunity to get my own gut microbiome analyzed. American Gut has been running for about a year and has so far analyzed microbiomes from over 9,000 people worldwide. What was appealing to me was not only that I would find out who is living in my gut, but also the crowdsourcing/crowdfunding model they use. I paid $99 for the opportunity to participate in this research project. It’s a brilliant strategy for a scientist to get his research funded and to engage research participants as well.

The whole process was relatively easy. You sign up and pay online, and they mail you the collection kits (a couple of long Q-tips in a sterile plastic tube). I ordered four kits: one for me, one for my husband, and one each for my two kids. You can choose to measure microbes in any part of your body — or your pet’s body, for that matter. You fill out a questionnaire, collect your sample, and mail it back. The only real challenge in this process was persuading my 12-year-old twins to provide the sample, but eventually they complied in the name of science.

So, what did I learn? I discovered how the composition of my gut microbiome compares to other people’s. I learned about the biodiversity in my gut, measured by the number of taxa not commonly found in other people. Whereas my kids had only two rare taxa in their gut, I had 10 — a virtual United Nations of microbes! I was able to compare my microbiome to that of Michael Pollan. I guess his gut microbiome must be the gold standard of health, assuming he subscribes to the healthful eating habits outlined in his book Food Rules. As expected, his gut includes a high percentage of a certain phylum of microbes that the average person, myself included, lacks. I also found that I carry one type of rare bacteria of the genus Agromyces at a density nearly 400 times higher than the average person! I quickly went to the internet to learn more about Agromyces, but after a half-hour of fruitless searching, it struck me just how nascent this field is. That pretty much sums it up.

I imagine one day, I will be able to look at my microbiome profile and draw inference about my health, but we’re just not there yet. That’s why participating in this type of research at this point in time is so exciting. We are at a new frontier of science, exploring new civilizations (I hear Star Trek music playing), but those civilizations are not remote. They are within each of us and, indeed, may be a more integral part of our existence than one could imagine. For now, I am content to just be part of this journey and will proudly display the 11×17 color poster of my gut microbiome on the wall of my office.

For more information, read our feature on the microbiome in the debut issue of Genome.