Why is the sky blue?

It is a well-known (but still fun) fact that the amount of microorganisms in your body outnumbers your own cells 10 to 1. Hundreds of trillions of microbes live within one human body – many crucial to the body’s health and physiological function. Until just recently microbes seemed to get the shafted by biologists, many of who were only interested in the host organism, you or me for example, but largely ignored the influences of our passenger-partners (excepting the virulent or dangerous ones, of course).

That is all changing now. In June of this year a series of papers were published in PLoS and Nature documenting the first progress of a gargantuan undertaking – the Human Microbiome Project or HMP. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project aims to sequence the genomes of the myriad microbial communities that live symbiotically in/on humans. The research is the open-ended, “blue sky” sort of science that makes some uneasy (I imagine a room full of lab-coat clad, visibly disgruntled scientists banging on clipboards and waving their arms around screaming “But where is the hypothesis?!”). But this sort of research is crucial in a burgeoning field of inquiry.

Cool Map of Human Microbiome Diversity

I spoke with Dr. Barbara Methe who has worked as a Co-Investigator on the project about the exploratory nature of the HMP research. She explained the fundamental difference between the HMP and most scientific investigations is the ‘discovery’ aspect. The human microbiome is completely alien territory; the researchers don’t have enough knowledge to hypothesize yet. This is why such work, while broad and inconclusive, is necessary to further the field. These researchers are laying the groundwork to be built upon by future medical and biological scientists; they are allowing the possibility of hypotheses by creating a vast library of uncharted data.

The HMP is a long way from achieving the goal of a robust database, currently only “healthy” (they had to fit into a tight box of clinical criteria) people living in the U.S. were analyzed. In order to reach the point where unique medical applications can be imagined, many more diverse populations – with varied diets, lifestyles, locations etc. – need to participate. The results of the project may not ‘prove’ anything, but the implications of future research are too compelling to ignore. To the HMP researchers: Onward, ho!