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Have You Tested Your Microbiome Lately? Here's How

uBiome is completely re-imagining microbiome experimentation -- and yes, you can do it in your own home, zero medical professionals needed (that is, until your results reach their San Francisco lab). Quite literally, uBiome allows you to sample and test the health (or lack thereof) of your own microbiome. Swab your mouth (or down south) to send in, and uBiome will sequence and analyze your microbes, and come back at you with super easy to understand statistics and graphs (such as, how your microbiome compares to vegetarians, or those on antibiotics). Pretty incredible stuff, huh? 

We sat down with uBiome co-founder Jessica Richman to dig into all the hows and whys of microbiome sequencing. We're obsessed.  


How did you first become interested in the field of the microbiome, and more specifically, microbiome self-testing?

My formal education was actually in an entirely different area — computational social science. I studied computer science and economics, then got a fellowship to Oxford and did a PhD in computational social science, essentially applied math relating to large social science datasets. It was excitement of getting the opportunity to apply these skills to the nascent field of the microbiome that led me to founding uBiome.


How does uBiome testing work, exactly?

uBiome currently offers tests for five different body areas. These are the nose, mouth, skin, genitals (male and female), and gut (gastrointestinal tract). Once your sample reaches our San Francisco lab, it gets processed in our state-of-the-art next-generation DNA sequencing lab.


Who should consider microbiome testing?

One of uBiome’s major benefits is that it enables individuals to better understand how their microbiome can be affected by their diet, supplements, and lifestyle. We help quantified selfers, diet hackers, and others learn about what’s in their microbiome and how their personal experiments affect their microbiome.

Later this year, we’re launching a set of clinical tests, which will be available to doctors and their patients. More details soon!


How do we know if the changes we're making are working?

Modification of the microbiome is not just about eliminating bad bacteria, it’s also about encouraging the growth of healthy microbes. For example, are the probiotics that you’re taking actually in your gut? By testing their gut before and after some kind of intervention, we can provide dependable evidence to show whether or not there has been some kind of change.


What are the top three signs of a healthy microbiome from your perspective?

In general, a healthy gut is likely to hold a diverse range of bacteria. It’s usually best for the gastrointestinal tract to contain a wide range of bacterial species.

Specific genera of bacteria have a tendency to be good for you. For example, Bifidobacterium is often associated with good health, so an absence — or even a lower amount  of it could be a warning sign. Likewise, Lactobacillus is another good bacteria which in fact often forms a key part of probiotic supplements. uBiome’s test results show whether both these genera are present, and if so, in what proportions.


Once someone undergoes microbiome testing, how should they interpret their results?

We’ve recently released a powerful new version of our citizen science test which enables you to see how your scores relate to important metrics about the gut microbiome.

This new functionality will result in uBiome’s test results being even easier to interpret, particularly in terms of identifying how your levels of particular types of bacteria compare to others. In addition to this, those who are particularly interested in fine details will find it easy to drill down to them. Testing yourself at monthly intervals will enable you to see at a glance how your metrics change over time, and doing so could help you correlate these variations with your lifestyle.


What are some of the most effective ways to improve the overall health of your microbiome?

Raspberries, bran, split peas, and artichokes are all great examples of foods that contain insoluble fiber. Many of your healthy bacteria only thrive when in the presence of fiber.

In addition to maintaining your existing good bacteria, it is also possible to introduce new healthy strains into the gut, and an effective way of doing so is to add fermented food such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha to your diet. These foods are rich in healthy microbes.


What are some of the most exciting applications of microbiome testing?

In our view, it’s difficult to underestimate the impact that microbiome testing will have on human health, particularly when you factor in our collection of data at great scale.

As we learn more about the microbiome, it may become clear that a wide range of conditions not currently viewed as infectious diseases may well end up being seen in that light. A good example is a collaborative study on eating disorders we’re currently involved in with Dr. Cynthia Bulik at the University of North Carolina. By investigating the microbiomes of people with eating disorders, Dr. Bulik is exploring the possibility that eating disorders like these could actually be infectious diseases rather than mental conditions. Alternatively it could be possible that eating disorders are the result of some kind of behavior by the gut’s bacteria which we do not yet fully understand.

Gut bacteria change over an individual’s lifespan. The microbiome generally becomes less diverse as someone gets old, which can correlate with declining health. Older people with more diverse microbiomes seem to be healthier than those whose guts contain fewer bacterial species.


What are some interesting things you’ve learned along the way?

We tend to think of what happens (or, sometimes, doesn’t) in our gut as a taboo subject, something not to be brought up in polite company. But we want to encourage people to feel comfortable talking about their microbiomes and their gut functions, so we can all learn more about our bodies and have a better relationship with the bacteria on and in us.

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