Reseachers to probe role of trillions of micro-organisms in our body

January 11th, 2009 - 2:22 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 11 (IANS) The human body is swarming with tens of billions of micro-organisms, including those in our gut that outnumber human cells by 10 to one, but very little is known about them or how they influence health and disease. A new molecular ecology facility at George Mason University, the MicroBiome Analysis Centre (MBAC), is attempting to scout this unchartered territory and map the world that these bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa infest within the body.

Their effect on human health will be a major focus of research at the Centre where investigators will explore microbial imbalances on or within the gut, mouth, respiratory tract and urinary and reproductive systems.

“It’s a new tactic to actually characterise the human microbiome or population of microorganisms living within the human body and try to correlate it with disease states and changes within the immune system,” said Patrick Gillevet, MBAC director and associate professor in Mason’s department of environmental science and policy.

“This centre will allow us to sequence and characterise these microorganisms in order to study their relationship to diseases such as obesity, cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.”

Gillevet, who has been studying the genes of microbes at Mason since 1998, developed and patented a technology for genomic sequencing in 2006 called Multitag Pyrosequencing (MTPS) that allows researchers to examine, count and barcode hundreds of thousands of microorganisms per day within samples taken from various ecological systems including the human body. MTPS will serve as the backbone of the Centre’s research efforts.

“Multitag Pyrosequencing is revolutionising the study of microbial communities,” said Gillevet. “Before this technology was developed, we would have been hard-pressed to identify a couple hundred of microbes per sample.”

“Now, we are identifying 50,000 or 60,000 microbes per sample. We can literally do in an afternoon what it took us 10 years to do in the past,” he added.

Supported by grants from the Department of Defence and National Institutes of Health, Gillevet’s team is currently collaborating with researchers at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago to chart the presence of microorganisms in patients suffering from breast cancer, Crohn’s Disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cirrhosis of the liver and HIV.

A large dilemma the Centre will look at is the correlation between a patient’s disease and the types and quantities of microbes in his or her body, said a Mason release.

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