Breakthrough: Human Microbiome Project maps healthy body microbes

The Human Microbiome Project, a 5-year, $173 million enterprise, has produced a major breakthrough: A detailed genetic map of microbes that live in a healthy human body or on it. An army of 200 researchers at 80 different institutions took part in the National Institutes of Health-funded endeavor, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Details are published in Nature and also the Public Library of Science.

While there is more work to be done, the scientists believe that their effort could help advance research in general but in particular the diagnosis of disease and the quest to find new ways to treat it. (Not coincidentally, microbiome startups are beginning to grow in number.) As the story notes, scientists have long known that the body carries "trillions of microorganisms" but didn't always know what they were, where they were located or how they could vary between individuals and body locations. Knowing that information should help researchers who are trying to figure out how to treat diseases caused by genetics, combined with a change in the bacteria the body carries, according to the article. For example, doctors could possibly fight obesity knowing better which gut microbes regulate fat digestion.

Researchers drew samples from the mouth, nose, skin, intestine, vagina and other parts of the body from 242 healthy volunteers in the U.S., according to the article. Once obtained, they used advanced versions of the DNA-sequencing machines put to work in the Human Genome Project to map DNA. What they found: A human microbiome contains more than 8 million genes. Also, a body carries more than 10,000 different microbe species. Future work will involve analyzing microbiomes from children and senior citizens, people with disease and individuals from Africa and South America.

- here's the Wall Street Journal article (sub. req)
- check out the Nature paper