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Exploring the Microbiome at the Museum

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This summer, the Museum is hosting the Healthy Microbiome Project—an exciting scientific study to find out more about the microbes that make, and keep, us all healthy. All visitors age 18 and older are invited to participate—just stop by the Sackler Educational Laboratory on the first floor, Saturdays and Sundays through July 31.

Dr. Paul Planet, the principal investigator on the Healthy Microbiome Project, is a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who collaborates with researchers at the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.

The situation for scientists researching the human microbiome today is a bit like that faced by naturalists when the Museum was founded in the 19th century. Like those researchers, we are just beginning to understand the theory and mechanisms that underpin this field of study, but our understanding is still rather superficial. We are beginning to grapple with the stunning diversity of the microbial life in, on, and around us, but we also know that we're just scratching the surface. The Healthy Microbiome Project aims to drive our understanding of the subject forward, and in doing so takes a place in the Museum’s long tradition of global discovery. This time, though, the expedition takes place within these very halls.

Microscopic image of skin showing skin cells and hairs
Your skin hosts a wide variety of microbes in huge numbers, but populations can vary among individuals.
© AMNH/B. Peterson

While studies of the microbiome have made significant progress in recent years, they’re lacking in a key ingredient: diversity. Most of what we know about the human microbiome is based on the study of relatively few individuals from the United States or other industrialized countries, all of whom were sampled over short periods of time. The National Institutes of Health-funded Human Microbiome Project, for instance, examined only about 250 adults from Texas and Missouri. Even larger studies (those with thousands of participants) have been focused on relatively small geographical areas such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

Find out what you're made of by participating in the Healthy Microbiome Project.
© AMNH/G. D'Allesandro

The Museum, though, attracts visitors from around the world to an environment that is dedicated to science and education. That makes it the perfect site to gather data that will provide the first approximation of the global, healthy human microbiome. In addition to swabbing participants for microbial samples to analyze, we are also collecting anonymized information about their health, as well as factors like their diet, travel history, and habits. The hope is that we can use these data points alongside the microbiome data to find patterns and learn more about the factors that influence microbiome development.

Human Origins Overview
Visitors can participate in the Sackler Educational Laboratory, located inside the Museum's Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.
 © AMNH/D. Finnin

While those are long-term goals, the project is off to a great start. In just our first weekend of our work here, May 14 and 15, the Healthy Microbiome Project sampled participants from every continent except Antarctica—all without leaving the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins! While even this sampling isn’t perfect—Museum visitors are a self-selected group of people, all of  whom are financially and physically able to travel—Museum visitors still represent an incredibly diverse group that can significantly broaden our understanding of microbiome populations and the role they play in human health.

For further details about how you can participate in the Healthy Microbiome Project, see the calendar listing. To learn more about the human microbiome at the Museum, visit the temporary exhibition The Secret World Inside You, open now.