The Human Microbiome Project was launched by the National Institutes of Health in 2007 yet there is still much to be known about microbiomes and how they impact our health.
“We have defined the boundaries of normal microbial variation in humans,” said James Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, in the release issued by the NIH as the first big batch of Human Microbiome Project studies were published last year. “Now we have a very good idea of what is normal for a healthy Western population and are beginning to learn how changes in the microbiome correlate with physiology and disease.”
We still have a way to go before we can alter our own microbiome to improve our health, but a tool developed by Emily Balskus, the Morris Kahn Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, in collaboration with Curtis Huttenhower, an associate professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, may offer an important step towards this goal.
The technique might eventually shed light on how the gut microbiome affects health, she added. “In the future we can start to think about things like comparative analyses,” she said. “In this paper we only looked at data from healthy humans, but we’d really like to compare the abundance of enzymes in microbiomes from healthy individuals and patients suffering from various diseases. This could give us a glimpse into how metabolic activities in the gut microbiome might be changing with disease. If there are certain enzymes that are particularly abundant in patients with a given disease, they could be potential therapeutic targets.”