As part of its Roadmap Initiative (see previous news), the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched the Human Microbiome Project. The ‘human microbiome’ refers to the collective genomes of all microorganisms present in or on the human body, of which there are actually more than there are human cells, although they comprise only 1-2% of total body mass.
The aim of the project is to explore the role of these microorganisms in human health and disease, and it will commence by awarding funding for the sequencing of 600 microbial genomes, bringing the total number available for further research up to around 1000. Researchers will also characterize the different forms of microbes present in samples from the digestive tract, mouth, skin, nose, and female urogenital tract of healthy human volunteers, and later from individuals with specific diseases, in the hope of linking specific changes in the microbiome with these diseases. The project will employ a relatively new approach called metagenomic sequencing, which sequences all DNA in samples, as opposed to that of isolated samples of individual species of microbe.
National Human Genome Research Institute Director, Francis S. Collins, who co-chairs the Human Microbiome Project Implementation Group, commented: "Our goal is to discover what microbial communities exist in different parts of the human body and to explore how these communities change in the presence of health or disease… In addition, we will likely identify novel genes and functional elements in microbial genomes that will reshape the way we think about and approach human biology” (see press release).
The Human Microbiome Project will also monitor and support research on the ethical, legal and social implications of the research., focusing on areas including the clinical and health implications of using probiotics, potential forensic uses of microbiome profiles, bioterrorism and biodefence applications, the application of new technologies from the project, and patenting and privacy issues.