American Gut: Q&A with Jeff Leach
Jeff Leach is an anthropologist by background – now an eager, albeit gray-haired graduate student at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – and the Founder of the Human Food Project. In collaboration with Rob Knight at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Jack Gilbert at Argonne National Laboratory they have launched a large-scale citizen science project to document the diversity of the American gut microbial ecosystem – giving anyone in the U.S. the opportunity to participate and to compare their microbes with thousands of others with the hope of revealing patterns in diet and lifestyle that shape our microbial communities.
PersonalGenomes.org has partnered with American Gut to create a third party research opportunity for PGP volunteers. We recently sat down with Jeff for a brief Q & A:
Where did the idea for American Gut come from and why use crowd sourcing?
The idea was hatched out of some pilot research we were doing among traditional groups in Southern Africa. In 2011, we started laying the groundwork to characterize the gut microbiome of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living on the edge of urbanization with the hopes of getting a glimpse at what our ancestral microbiome may have looked like before it ran gut first into the buzz saw of globalization. In other words, if we ever want to understand what a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ gut microbiome looks like – and how we might achieve that ancestral gut, again – we will need to look outside our modern world. So the idea was to assemble a large and diverse dataset of ‘modern’ microbiomes with extensive metadata (the American Gut Project) to get a handle on the diets and lifestyles that were potentially driving variability, to compare with more ‘untainted’ microbiomes around the world. Jeff Gordon, Maria Dominguez-Bello and others are doing important work in this regard as well.
Crowd sourcing was a great platform to launch this effort – quickly and efficiently. Citizen science has a long history and the gut microbiome lends itself well to public participation. As I believe food and health is this generation’s civil rights movement, social and crowd-like platforms for building a community, awareness and actionable solutions will emerge as great tools.
I see that a pretty impressive team has been assembled for the project
Yeah. The credit for that all goes to Rob Knight. He and Jack, along with others, launched the Earth Microbiome Project to analyze the microbial diversity of the entire earth. It’s the big-idea-can-do thinking that makes the American Gut project. The list of collaborators that have signed on to the project will participate via inter-lab/university agreements in the data interpretation. Some labs may also do some select portions of the analysis as well. The depth of the ‘collaborator bench’ will allow for some pretty interesting insight into the data as it comes available.
How can the PGP volunteers contribute or benefit from American Gut
No doubt your genetic makeup plays a significant role in the shaping your second genome (your microbiome). I think Ruth Ley from Cornell, who is also a collaborator on this project, is doing some interesting research in that regard. The PGP community is obviously very interested in their health and well-being and participating in the process. The detailed metadata collected with American Gut, coupled with the existing data from PGP, will make for some interesting insight. And the fact that PGP volunteers that join the American Gut project will be able to ‘claim’ their results, thus sharing of computable datasets between the two projects. This will be unprecedented.
We are very excited about this effort – but there is a window of opportunity that closes on January 7. So anyone that think they might want to help with American Gut, will need to do so quickly. Note also, first-in-first-out rule applies – ie, those who sign up the earliest will receive the quickest results.
Learn more and sign-up at www.indiegogo.com/americangut
12/1: There is a problem with the indiegogo site. They have been notified so hopefully it will be fixed soon.
12/3: Fixed! The American Gut page is live again after being down for the weekend due to some sort of administrative hiccup that required IndieGogo staff to intervene and nobody was available Saturday or Sunday. I guess I’m happy that IndieGogo staff got to take off for the weekend! :)