“We’re not individuals, we’re colonies of creatures.”— Bruce Birren, co-director, Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program
The human body is home to an enormous number and diversity of microbes. Within the body of a healthy adult, microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells by 10-fold. And the combined genetic contributions of these microbes — in excess of 100,000 protein-coding genes — may provide essential traits not encoded in our own genome yet required for normal development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition. The mission of the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is to generate resources to describe these microbial communities and to analyze their roles in health and disease.
The HMP is not a single project but an interdisciplinary effort under the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. One-year grants were recently awarded to four sequencing centers — the Broad Institute, the Baylor College of Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine, and the J. Craig Venter Institute — to start building a framework and data resources for the five-year project.
The Broad Institute will contribute to several HMP goals:
- Generate a comprehensive set of 1,000 reference genomes from organisms comprising the human microbiome.
- Determine whether individuals share a core human microbiome.
- Understand whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health.
- Develop new technologies and bioinformatics tools necessary to achieve these goals.