Harvard IDs key human-hosted bugs with computer systems

A massive research effort has explored the vast number of microbes that live on and inside our bodies, amassing an incredible amount of data on the microbial genes that dwarfs the information from a human genome. And Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has applied new computational methods to hunt down the key players in these microbial populations in humans.

The overarching endeavor, called the Human Microbiome Project, found that there are more than 10,000 different species of microbes living--mostly peacefully--in and on humans. Like with vast data from the human genome, powerful computers are needed to slice and dice genetic data from the microbiome to come up with some insights as to what they mean. And Harvard pioneered some of the computational methods used to organize the huge datasets and identify microbes that are, say, important for digestion or tamping down inflammation.

While a slew of papers were published last week to describe the findings from the 5-year project, one from Nature Methods highlights the novel computational methods that HSPH's Curtis Huttenhower and his colleagues used to pinpoint some 350 major species of microbes. And there's no doubt that bioinformatics systems will be crunching data from the big project for years to come, with scientists still puzzling over the functions of many bacteria and other microbes housed in humans.

"This research tells us the range of healthy variation in microbial function and in specific bugs. Knowing which sorts of microbes are normally found in healthy people can help us understand the roles they play during changes in disease," said Huttenhower, assistant professor of computational biology and bioinformatics in the Department of Biostatistics at HSPH, in a statement. "Just as human genome sequencing helps us figure out how a person's genes put them at risk or protect them, so too can the microbial genomes associated with the human body provide information about health benefits or risks."

- here's the release