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This Is Your Microbiome

Katherine Harmon Courage at NPR is taking a tour through her microbiome and that of her husband, mother, and dog, as she recounts in a four-part series.

Increasing evidence, she says, indicates that the inhabitants of a person's microbiome can influence disease risk as well as how people metabolize medications and itself can be affected by antibiotics. To see how it all works, she rounded up her husband, mother, and dog — she notes the dog was the most compliant — to take part in the American Gut Project that was founded by the University of Colorado's Rob Knight.

They sent their samples, background information, and a diet log off to Boulder for analysis. Once there, Courage notes that they spent a bit of time waiting to be processed. To keep costs down, Knight waits until there are enough samples to fill the machines before proceeding.

Eventually, they get their results. Courage reports that her microbiome is chock full of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. She writes that she is a little surprised by her results as she has more Firmicutes than the average person and that has been linked to obesity, but she says she's always been thin, and her distribution of Bacteroidetes indicated that her diet was likely to be heavier on the animal protein and fat than carbohydrates, though she said she eats a mainly plant-based diet. But the researchers tell her that they aren't quite sure how to interpret microbiomes just yet.

"We don't have a good handle on the bounds for what a healthy gut looks like in the larger population, or how lifestyle and diet drive the gut," Daniel McDonald, a graduate student working on the project, tells her.

Courage notes that her microbiome was most similar to her husband's than her mother's, and McDonald adds that co-habitation likely drives a number of the similarities. The dog, though, is still waiting on his results.

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