Known as the American Gut project, the effort raised the money through a crowdfunding drive online in which collective groups of people pool money to support various initiatives.
The $340,477 raised for the American Gut project is the largest amount of money ever raised through crowdfunding for a science project, said Knight, who is co-leading the effort with Jeff Leach, founder of the Human Food Project.
The money contributed by 2,005 funders will be used to sequence gut bacteria from about 3,500 people, according to CU-Boulder associate professor Rob Knight of the BioFrontiers Institute.
Each human is believed to harbor roughly 10 trillion microorganisms – about 10 times more than the number of cells in the human body – that undertake a number of important functions ranging from digesting food to the strengthening of immune systems.
In 2009, a consortium of 200 researchers from 80 institutions organized by the National Institutes of Health, including Knight, mapped the normal microbial makeup of healthy humans as part of the $173 million Human Microbiome Project.
Building on the massive NIH effort, the American Gut project will be an “open-source” effort, meaning participants will have access to the data gathered to help understand how diet and lifestyle may contribute to human health through the interaction of our microbiomes, cells and genes, Knight said.
Scientists particularly are interested in how diet and lifestyle, whether by choice or necessity, affect peoples’ microbial makeup, including those suffering from particular autoimmune diseases or who have food allergies, said Knight, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute early-career scientist.
Daniel McDonald, a graduate student in the BioFrontiers Institute’s IQ Biology Program, said the American Gut project is allowing him to hone his interdisciplinary experience. IQ Biology students are involved in semester-long rotations that immerse them in disciplines ranging from mathematical and computational biology to biophysics and bio-imaging. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for discovery,” he said.