August 25, 2017

Massachusetts General is helping launch the 'biggest study of the human microbiome'—and wants your help

Daily Briefing

    Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and several scientific institutions are launching what they call the "biggest study of the human microbiome"—and they want to use your computer to do it.

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    Project details

    For the Microbiome Immunity Project, scientists at MGH, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the University of California, San Diego, and the Simons Foundation's Flatiron Institute aim to map all three million bacterial genes in the human microbiome and predict what their associated proteins might look like.

    The researchers plan to start by examining the microbiome in the human digestive system, with the goal of understanding the role of the microbiome in autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. Such understanding, the researchers said, could provide insight into how to prevent and treat those diseases. 

    To access the supercomputing power required to assess the three million bacterial genes in the human microbiome, the researchers are tapping into IBM's World Community Grid. The grid crowdsources computing power from volunteers—anyone with a computer and internet access can download a secure software program that automatically discerns when a computer has processing power to spare. The software accesses that unused processing power and uses it to virtually run experiments related to the Microbiome Immunity Project.

    The researchers plan to assess the data from the virtual experiments and then make the data publicly accessible to other scientists to further research and treatment of the autoimmune diseases.

    Comments

    Ramnik Xavier, co-director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and chief of the gastrointestinal unit at MGH, said, "This type of research on the human microbiome, on this scale, has not been done before." He added, "It's only possible with massive computational power."

    Separately, Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego, said, "By harnessing the efforts of volunteers, we can do something that exceeds the scale of what we have access to by a factor of thousands. For the first time, we're bringing a comprehensive structural biology picture to the whole microbiome, rather than solving structures one at a time in a piecemeal fashion" (Monegain, Healthcare IT News, 8/23; Seiffert, Boston Business Journal, 8/23; New Scientist, 8/23; IBM release, 8/23).

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