What Bacteria Live Inside Our Bellies?

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NAU Assistant Professor Greg Caporaso is on the American Gut "dream team."

Bacteria in our bellies help us break down the food we eat, but not everybody’s digestive track is the same. In fact, a new research project, called American Gut, is trying to get an insider’s look at bacterial colonies living in our guts to see which ones might be correlated with such diseases as obesity, cancer, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease. All of these diseases are more common in Western population. One of the goals of the project is to help determine what healthy and unhealthy intestinal environments look like and what role diet plays in the optimal functioning of the digestive track. But this will require analyzing the DNA of bacteria and other belly microbes in thousands of samples.

To build up its data base, American Gut is inviting 10,000 Americans and their pets to sign up to be tested at indiegogo.com—for a fee of $99 or more and a stool sample. “In addition to increasing our understanding of the human gut microbiome, this study provides a way to get nonscientists excited and informed about new technologies and the insights they enable; and by making the data publicly accessible, it can be fed into classrooms and used to train the next generation of scientists,” says Assistant Professor of Biology and Computer Science Gregory Caporaso at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Caporaso, who teaches bioinformatics at NAU, is part of a dream team of 32 researchers worldwide working on the project.

Caporaso is leading the data-heavy analysis for the project. “We’ll generate hundreds or thousands of gigabytes of DNA-sequenced data over the course of this project. It takes advanced computational techniques and advanced statistical methods to analyze that data,” Caporaso says. Caporaso developed many of the project’s computational techniques.