The human body may contain thousands more microbial communities than previously thought.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and University of Maryland School of Medicine, have discovered thousands of new measurements of microbial communities in the gut, skin, mouth and vaginal microbiome.
“This study has given us the most detailed information to date about exactly which microbes and molecular processes help to maintain health in the human microbiome,” Curtis Huttenhower, an associate professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at Harvard Chan School, associate member of the Broad Institute and senior author of the study, said in a statement.
After analyzing 1,631 new samples from 265 individuals from diverse body sites and at multiple points in time, the researchers used DNA sequencing tools to precisely identify which organisms are present in various body sites, as well as what they might be able to do.
Microbiome has been linked to several diseases and ailments including allergies and cancer. By examining microbes at multiple time points, scientists can discover which part of the community might change slowly, rapidly or stay relatively stable over time.
In 2007, the researchers launched the Human Microbiome Project to identify and characterize human microbes, explore microbes’ relationship to health and disease and develop computational tools to analyze the microbes. This study represents the second phase of that project.
The new findings provide one of the largest profiles of non-bacterial members—viruses and fungi—of the microbiome across the body, while the researchers also identified microbes with specific strains within each body site. The researchers profiled the biochemical activity that allows microbes to help maintain human health and identified how the microbes and their biochemistry change over time.
“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,” Jason Lloyd-Price, postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Chan School, and lead author of the study, said in a statement.