College of ACES
College News

American Gut Project seeks samples from people and their pets

Published November 21, 2012
Medical professional taking notes on a clipboard

URBANA – The government’s Human Microbiome Project effort sampled healthy adults, mostly medical students, with remarkable results, but did it really capture a true snapshot of the American gut? Researchers who study the microbiomes in the gut are seeking samples from athletes, couch potatoes, vegans, diabetics, Paleo dieters, centenarians, literally every American willing to participate – and their pets – in order to create a true picture of what’s inside the gut of the American population. Anyone above the age of 3 months is invited to submit a sample to the largest crowd-sourced gut microbiome project in history.

Those interested in participating in or learning more about the American Gut Project, can visit http://humanfoodproject.com/american-gut/.

“Previous projects, including the five-year, $173-million NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project, focused on highly selected groups of people, and there has been no way for the general public to participate, much less their children or pets,” said Kelly Swanson, an Associate Professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies the effects of diet on the gastrointestinal microbiome of humans, dogs, and cats.  “The American Gut Project, led by the Human Food Project, will take the microbiome field a critical step forward, moving the research from a well-controlled lab environment to the real world and gets everyone involved.”

A small home kit will be sent to those who register on the website along with a confidential questionnaire about diet and general lifestyle. After sequencing the genetic material in the gut material, participants will be provided with a print out of the bacteria and their abundance so they can compare their own gut bugs to other populations around the world.

Swanson said they are particularly interested in participants who follow a set diet and lifestyle, such as gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low glycemic or Paleo/Primal diet. “We are also especially interested in samples from people who follow popular diets like Weight Watchers, people who track calories on a website, and multiple people from the same household.”

“This project truly brings together a dream team of microbiome investigators”, said Rob Knight, an Associate Professor with the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-founder of American Gut. “And building a framework where we can join together to understand the microbiome is critical.” The gut microbiome has been linked to many diseases, including obesity, cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease; interestingly, all of these diseases are much more common in Western populations.  Such diseases are also more common in pets living in Westernized societies.

“We should start thinking about diets not only from the perspective of what we should eat, but what we should be feeding our entire supraorganism,” said Jeff Leach, founder of the Human Food Project and co-founder of American Gut. Leach, trained as an anthropologist, has studied hunter-gatherers and hopes to use American Gut to compare Westernized populations with those elsewhere in the world.

“I am really excited to participate in this project”, said Swanson. “The research is led by world leaders in the microbiome field and targets free-living populations with more application to the average American.  Moreover, the project will include all members of the family, including our furry companions.  The majority of data we currently have on the dog and cat microbiomes has come from a handful of small studies in research labs or clinically ill animals.  This project will apply the technology to free-living pets, where diet, genetics, and living environment are quite different from household to household.  This research may identify important trends not possible with lab-based studies, and help guide us on how to feed our pets in the future.”