The uBiome Citizen Science Project Interview


We’re big fans of unlocking scientific research from being performed exclusively in traditional research institutions and putting it in the hands of citizen scientists, so we’re intrigued by the uBiome project. In a nutshell, “uBiome is a citizen science project that allows the public access to cutting edge sequencing technology to understand their health through the microbiome.” Led by a group of three bright, young scientists, uBiome seeks to expand the body knowledge of available about the microbiome. From their site:

The human microbiome may be as important to our health as the human genome, but unlike the human genome, the microbiome can be easily changed. The human body is composed of about 100 trillion microbial cells (the microbiome) and only 10 trillion human cells. Medical researchers have demonstrated major correlations between human health and the biodiversity of microbes inhabiting the human body.

The microbes of the microbiome inhabit every inch of the skin as well as the ears, mouth, sinuses, and gut. Much as the health of the rainforest depends upon biodiversity, the human microbiome functions best with optimal diversity. This diversity serves to keep potential pathogens in check and regulate the immune system.

Microbes also perform essential functions such as digesting food and synthesizing vitamins. Some research also suggests that microbial activity influences mammalian mood and behavior. Up to 20 percent of the small molecules in our bloodstream appear to be synthesized by microbes. Studies have linked the microbiome to autism, depression, and anxiety as well as many gut disorders, eczema, and chronic sinusitis. Infant health even appears to benefit from a proper seeding of microbes at birth, with health consequences ranging into adolescence.

We caught up with researcher Jessica Richman to learn more.

1. Who are uBiome’s core team members?
The core members are myself, Dr. Will Ludington, and Dr. Zachary Apte. I have degrees in Economics and Science as well as Technology & Society (emphasis in computer science) from Stanford. I’m currently a doctoral student at Oxford University, and my academic interests include social networks, innovation, collective intelligence, and entrepreneurship. Will is an independent investigator and a Bowes Fellow in the Molecular Cell Biology department at the University of California, Berkeley. He specializes in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of gut microbiota and their effects on host behavior using metagenomic approaches. Zac is a biophysicist, inventor, and entrepreneur dedicated to finding creative, unique solutions to intractable problems facing the world. Trained in both theoretical high-energy physics and cell biology, he holds a PhD in biophysics from UCSF.

2. What inspired the project and how did the team come together?
uBiome was inspired by the experiences of my co-founders when working on microbiome-related projects in the lab. Zac and Will met at UCSF; I met Zac at Startup Chile, a program of the Chilean government to establish Chile as an innovation hub in Latin America.

3. You’re all from university backgrounds, where you could potentially be funded to do your research. Why citizen science?
We chose citizen science for a few reasons. First, citizen science allows us to do more exploratory research. Second, it allows us to involve the public directly in the research and unleash the potential of citizen science. Our team is really passionate about citizen science and a big part of why we did this project was to involve the public directly in groundbreaking scientific work.

For Science! Photo of Founders

4. Having experience with traditional academic research, what excites you most about the potential of science research for the people, by the people?
That’s a great question. First, there is the potential to ask and answer questions that would never be in a research study but are of great interest to a lot of people — in our case, around diets, weight loss, etc. Also, the opportunity to unleash the scientific prowess of intelligent, thoughtful people who are not “scientists” — not credentialed in science, but think deeply about scientific questions and issues.

5. Describe the uBiome kits and the process that takes place once a sample is sent back to you.
The kit is basically a cotton swab and a tube of lysing solution. We send it to you; then you either swab your mouth, nose, genitals, behind the ear, or your gut (yes, you swab your poop off the toilet paper). You also complete an extensive health survey. You send it back, and we extract and sequence the DNA, then send you a login to our website to see three things: 1) what’s in your gut or other site, 2) correlations with others in our sample, and 3) correlations with existing studies.

smaple brush

6. You have an accompanying website where participants can visualize their data and learn more. How was the site developed?
We are currently developing the site with our computer scientists and bioinformaticians.

7. What’s the most important thing you and your team have learned so far working on uBiome?
We’ve learned a lot about what people think of our product, how we should develop it, etc. We’ve also seen what a passion the public has for citizen science. Very exciting!

8. What specific long-term goals is the team hoping to achieve through the project?
We are hoping to bring microbiome sequencing into the mainstream, and to learn very important things about health and disease. We’d love to help unlock the mysteries of bowel disorders, cancer, and other conditions that interact with the microbiome.

9. Besides the uBiome project, what advice do you have for folks interested in delving into citizen science?
We’d say, “Get involved!” Many people have approached us for help with their projects and we think that is a fantastic trend. Let me take the opportunity to plug an organization that I’m also involved with: We started this project so that other researchers could learn how to create citizen science projects of their own!

To learn more about the project and get involved, check out the uBiome site, Indigogo page, and this interview on H+ magazine.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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