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Crowdfunding and Citizen Science Meet at Microbiome
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Crowdfunding and Citizen Science Meet at Microbiome

It’s no secret that humans are quite complex beings. So complex, in fact, that some scientists have recently began to look at them more as ecosystems than single entities.

The reason for this is the advance in research done on bacteria that reside within us, collectively known as microbiome. These tiny organisms, which number in the trillions and carry millions of genes foreign to the human body, are especially concentrated in people’s guts.

They help break down foods, create vitamins, and work together with our own immune systems to repel intruder germs, among many other functions. And, since many are passed down from mother to offspring during childbirth, they may also be the key to curing genetic diseases.

There is much excitement among scientists about microbiome and their potential in medicine. Still, however, little is known about these microorganisms, how drastically they differ from person to person, and how they may be manipulated to our benefit. While extensive studies have been conducted around microbiome, they examined only a tiny fraction of what is out there. The National Institute of Health, for example, spent over $170 million to sequence 242 microbiome.

Now, scientists are looking to sequence microbiome of many more individuals. To do so, they’re hosting crowdfunding campaigns and asking citizen scientists to become both test subjects and early funders.

Two such initiatives are uBiome and American Gut, both of which launched in the past week and a half on Indiegogo.

The testing process for the two projects – should a person decide to back either or both – is relatively straightforward. After the campaigns end, backers will receive testing kits and surveys about their eating habits and demographics. Then, they will send back a microbiome sample to the labs. After scientists work their magic, backers will receive a detailed report on their microbiome, as well as comparative data. Both campaigns promise complete privacy when sharing the results.

The campaigns offer different reward levels, but the price for microbiome sequencing will set funders back around $100 for American Gut, and about $20 less than that for uBiome. The campaigns are asking for hefty lumps of cash – American Gut for $400,000 and uBiome for $100,000. Both projects, however, chose to use the flexible funding model, meaning they will get whatever money they raise.

This makes sense, as there is no real necessity to hit critical mass for the tests to work. More people participating will reveal more about microbiome, but as these bacteria are still a relative mystery, any and all results will help.

The campaigns are off to good starts thus far: uBiome has raised over $18,000 from 150 backers, while American Gut stands at around $11,500 from 75 contributors.

Researchers tapping into the crowd is nothing new – we’ve written on several occasions about citizen scientists contributing to important discoveries. Asking people to contribute both funds and content for science, however, is quite novel.

For these two campaigns, this model seems to work. Both parties have something the other wants: researchers need access to microbiome and early funding, while backers get a chance to better understand their bodies, as well as an opportunity to participate in research that may help humanity. Individual actors working together for the common good – at least in that regard, we may not be so different from the organisms within us.

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