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American Gut lead researcher Rob Knight
American Gut lead researcher Rob Knight wants to see your microbes.

Outliers: Need a gut check? Two projects have it covered

Posted: December 15, 2012 - 12:01 am ET

The bacterial zoo inside your gut could look very different if you're a vegetarian or an Atkins dieter, a couch potato or an athlete, fat or thin.

Now for a fee—$69 and up—and a stool sample, the curious can find out just what's living in their intestines and take part in one of the hottest new fields in science.

Outliers isn't sure how many average Joes really want to pay for the privilege of mailing such samples to scientists. But researchers running two novel citizen-science projects are hoping a lot of folks want to participate.

One, the American Gut project, aims to enroll 10,000 people—and a bunch of their dogs and cats, too—from around the country. The other, uBiome, separately aims to enroll nearly 2,000 people from anywhere in the world.

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“We're finally enabling people to realize the power and value of bacteria in our lives,” microbiologist Jack Gilbert of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory told the Associated Press. He's one of a team of well-known scientists involved with the American Gut project.

The projects are looking to answer a number of questions: Which combinations of bacteria seem to keep us healthy? Which ones might encourage problems such as obesity, diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome? Do diet and lifestyle affect those microbes in ways that we might control someday?

Getting answers will require studying vast numbers of people. Starting with a grass-roots movement makes sense, says National Institutes of Health microbiologist Lita Proctor, who isn't involved with the new projects but is watching them closely.

It's clear that people's gut bacteria can change over time. What this new research could accomplish is a first look at how different diets may play a role, “a much better understanding of what matters and what doesn't,” says Rob Knight, American Gut lead researcher of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“We don't just want people that have a gut-ache. We want couch potatoes. We want babies. We want vegans. We want athletes. We want anybody and everybody because we need that complete diversity,” adds American Gut co-founder Jeff Leach, an anthropologist.

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