We humans are swimming in a proverbial ocean of microscopic life. Not just on our doorknobs and toilet seats, but on our skin, in our guts, an all over and inside us. If you haven’t heard the term “microbiome,” it makes sense to understand it’s definition first:
“The ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.”
uBiome is a company on a mission to sequence and understand the human microbiome in an uncommon way. “We’re a citizen science startup” says CEO Jessica Richman, who’s spoken at TED on this topic. Essentially, the team aims to pool information from anyone interested in testing their own microbiome (the “areas” that uBiome distinguishes for microbiome sequencing are the nose, mouth, genitals, skin, and gut). “If you read the latest issue of Science of Nature… the sample size of the top, leading microbiome studies in the world are maybe using a few hundred people, maybe a hundred people.”
The goal at uBiome is not only to offer a service to sequence the microscopic life of interested individuals (who’ll pay around $85.00 for the kit to do it yourself), but to collect and make sense of that massive amount of data to help move the scientific understanding of the microbiome forward at a “big data” pace.
For Jessica, however, uBiome represents another paradigm shift in research in general. Not only with non-PhDs be potentially capable of contributing to the progress of science, but “citizen scientists” will be more likely to direct and guide the research itself. “Research today is still very top down,” says Jessica, and the goal is not just to contribute data from the masses, but questions, concerns, and ideas about the direction of research. If the data is “democratized,” and the public are the ones providing it (not to mention they’re the ones bringing in revenue), it only makes sense that they’d have a hand in what kind of research initiatives gain traction in the first place.
uBiome also sits on the nexus of microbiome research and the applications thereof. Already, there’s a subtle shift in our understanding of the “bugs” on and in our bodies as not being all “bed.” Jessica explains “it’s not a battlefield, it’s a garden to be cultivated properly… all of the analogies are usually around ‘killing’ pathogens or ‘eliminating’ viruses…” but it needn’t be that way. In the future, Jessica sees a world where we not only understand the health implications and correlations related to the microbiome, but where we might have customized probiotic diets, “sanitizers” that don’t brag about the percentage of micro organisms they can kill, and maybe even showers / rooms / buildings populated by specific microbiome strains to help promote the health of the humans inside them.
Jessica also believes that citizen science opens up massive opportunities for startups, as well. The trick, however, is not merely to collect data, but to find a way to make it fun and engaging for people from all over the world to take the initiative to contribute and/or make sense of this data themselves. Citizen scientists are engaged in their own health, or in science in general – and making a platform to easily allow them to fulfill their desire to contribute and curiosity to learn may prove to be phonemically profitable business models (in addition to moving science forward with bigger data sets, if done correctly).
Anyone who wants to dig deeper into citizen science can find Jess’s own citizenscience.org blog, scistarter.com, or check out the Cornell ornithology department’s website, which serves as general resource on citizen science as a whole.