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What Are You Made Of?

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This weekend, the Museum is kicking off the Healthy Microbiome Project—an exciting scientific study to find out more about the microbes that make, and keep, us all healthy. And we’re inviting visitors to participate.

Rob DeSalle, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and co-curator of the special exhibition about the human microbiome, The Secret World Inside You, explains the important role visitors can play beginning May 14.

light-filled display of "The Secret World Inside You" exhibit
The Secret World Inside You explores the trillions of microbes that live on and in our bodies.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

It’s incredible to think that large-scale investigations of the human microbiome aren’t even a decade old. The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) launched in 2008 with the goal of identifying and characterizing the microorganisms found on and in the human body. In the study, researchers surveyed 242 healthy volunteers from the United States who gave swab samples that offered a snapshot of the microbial populations from different habitats on the human body: in our underarms, behind our knees, on our hands, in our mouths, in our noses, and on our scalps. Even the internal microbiome was examined, courtesy of fecal samples provided by volunteers. 

By 2013, HMP had produced a reference database of more than 10,000 species that make up the human microbiome. But now, we’re moving beyond that first phase—and you can help.

Artist's rendering of Lactobacillus, a bacteria commonly found in the human gut.
© AMNH/B. Peterson

Researchers are using the existing database and map of the human microbiome to better understand its impact on human health and well being. As part of this effort, we need to develop longitudinal data sets across time and across different populations of humans, to track how microbiomes change over time and in different people. That’s where the Museum and the Healthy Microbiome Project come in. 

Starting this spring, the Museum is working with researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on a study that aims to sample microbes from a group of people that represents a wide variety of ages and hometowns—our visitors.

Every weekend starting May 14, Healthy Microbiome Project staff will be present in the Museum’s Sackler Educational Lab to collect samples from participants ages 18 and up by gently swabbing their hands, mouths, and nostrils. The samples, which will be handled anonymously, will be analyzed to identify microbial species. Educational activities in the lab will also give visitors a sense of how these samples will be cultured and analyzed.

SWIY Visitors
The diversity of the Museum's visitors makes it a great place to get a snapshot of microbial populations.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Given that the Museum welcomes visitors from all over the world, the samples we collect should give researchers a pretty good idea of the kinds of microbiomes passing through New York City, and hence a good view of the healthy microbiome of the city overall. And by using a sampling of visitors at different times of the year, researchers hope to be able to track the kinds of changes that occur in the healthy microbiome as the weather and seasons change.  

This data will be invaluable for adding to our knowledge about how our microbiome affects human health, and the Museum is proud to play this role in gathering it. We hope you’ll join us!

For details about how you can participate in the Healthy Microbiome Project, see the calendar listing.