The Human Microbiome: What Am I Made Of? Part 1

Human Genome12.18.2014

Written by: Selective Micro Technologies

Consider this question: Are you composed of more human cells or microbial cells? The Human Microbiome Project has found the answer to this and many more queries since the project began in 2007. This is an extension of the Human Genome Project, which called for more research upon the many discoveries making up the Human Microbiome. Within this new “What Am I Made Of” series, we are going to explore more into what the Human Microbiome project is and what they have discovered, along with looking at some of the microbial cells that make up our bodies. These microbial cells may act as helpful and normal flora in our bodies but can also become disease causing, killing machines.

History on Various Scientific Findings

The Human Genome project was started in 1990 as an international collaborative effort to map the human genome. The discovery of the double helix DNA has opened many doors in the efforts of genetic research. In 2003, the human genome sequence was completed. Along the way toward the completed genetic sequencing, many discoveries were made, such as genetic reasoning for what causes different diseases such as progeria and microcephaly, as well as a wide variety of cancers. They also developed gene tests that became predictors for certain kinds of cancers.

The amazing thing about scientific research is that it often leads to the discovery for necessity of further research in other areas. This is exactly the case in regards to the Human Genome Project. They found that not only was the vast Human Genome needing to be researched, but the Human Microbiome as well.  

What is the Human Microbiome Project?

In an article titled, “The Human Microbiome Project: Extending the Definition of What Constitutes a Human,” by Joy Yang, she explains what led to the Microbiome project: “One of the surprises of the Human Genome Projectwas the discovery that the human genome contains only 20,000 - 25,000 protein-coding genes, about a fifth the number researchers had expected to find.” In order to account for missing pieces, which could account for this perceived discrepancy, researchers began searching and looking toward other sources of genetic material that contribute to human function.

One of these sources was the human microbiome. Yang thoroughly details what constitutes the microbiome, which is defined as the “collective genomes of the microbes (composed of bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa and viruses) that live inside and on the human body.” We carry nearly 10 times as many microbial cells as we carry that of human cells. So, as a measure to study the human as a "supra-organism," of which is composed of both non-human and human cells, in 2007 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) as a conceptual extension of the Human Genome Project.

The National Institute of Health studies the human microbiome which they describe as the Microscopic study of the healthy human body has “demonstrated that microbial cells outnumber human cells by about ten to one.” Until recently, though, this abundant community of human-associated microbes remained largely unstudied, leaving their influence upon human development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition almost entirely unknown.

The Human Microbiome Project Mission

The NIH Common Fund Human Microbiome Project (HMP) was established with the mission of generating research resources enabling comprehensive characterization of the human microbiota and analysis of their role in human health and disease.” They detail that the objective of this initiative is to develop information that the community can “use to evaluate which biological properties of the microbiome and host will yield important new insights in understanding human health and disease.” For thousands of years, diseases were thought to be caused by the gods being mad at the humans, or simply known as “The Plague” of unknown origin. Now we have answers to what all of these ailments, illnesses, and death were caused by: microbes. 

Research about the different kinds of microbes that live on and inside of our bodies has demonstrated various phenomena about the complexities of the human body and its attendant microorganisms microbial make up. In the next few parts to this series, we will investigate different kinds of ‘good’ bacteria or normal flora that dwell in the human body compared to microbial infestation by ‘bad’ bacteria and viruses that causes diseases. Knowledge is power.