A Crowd-Sourced and Crowd-Funded Firm Launches at UCSF

Graduate Division

On Friday, November 30, the newest business to come from the Quantitative Biosciences Institute start-up incubator at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus held its launch party.

uBiome is a citizen science initiative that seeks to sequence the human microbiome on a larger scale than ever before by utilizing crowd-funding. The company was founded by recent UCSF graduates Dr. Will Ludington and Dr. Zach Apte, along with Jessica Richman, a network science and entrepreneurship specialist at Oxford University. Synapse had a chance to sit down with the founders at the company launch party and learn more about this innovative startup.

As of this writing, uBiome has raised more than $75,000 from over 672 funders on four continents and in 11 countries. If you are interested in sequencing your microbiome or learning more about uBiome, check out its fund-raising platform at www.indiegogo.com/uBiome.

What is the microbiome?

Will Ludington: A microbiome is an ecological community of microbes. The human microbiome is the diverse community of microbes that inhabit our bodies — inside and out. They inhabit the human body like we inhabit the Earth. In terms of cell numbers, our microbiome outnumbers our own cells by 10 to 1, but they add up to about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass.

The dropping cost of DNA sequencing has allowed us to ask: Who are these microbes in our bodies and what are they doing there? Based on some functional studies in model organisms and correlative studies in human study groups, it turns out the microbiome has profound influences on our health, ranging from body mass and core metabolism to moods and behavior. It's a fascinating research area.

Through providing the technical services of sequencing and analysis as well as access to an easy publishing platform, we hope that uBiome will accelerate the discovery process by lowering the barriers to research.

What is citizen science?

Will Ludington: Citizen science is a way of crowd-sourcing science. It allows non-scientists to take part in scientific experiments, typically by collecting data or helping with analysis. Some prominent examples are iNaturalist, which records wildlife sightings through users’ iPhones, and Foldit, which makes protein folding and structure determination into a game.

uBiome goes a step further by engaging citizen scientists in the actual hypothesis generation, asking for their insights into how their microbiome affects their health — of course, that's in addition to collecting their samples and health data and providing them analysis.

How can the public help?

Zach Apte: There are a few ways you can help us. The idea of crowd funding is that we’re sending this citizen science project out into the world. So we want people from around the world to contribute money to sequence their samples and contribute their samples to us, so that we can tell them, “This is what is living in and on your body,” and the correlations with studies that have already been done.

The next way you can help is to spread the word. The further we can reach into the world, the more data we can get and the more we can learn. This is the start of what we think is an interesting citizen science community that we want to expand outwards. Hopefully, it is something we can use to improve the world, and that’s our vision.

How many samples do you want? What are you sampling?

Jessica Richman: As many as we can get! We are sampling five different sites — gut microflora, mouth, nose, ears and genitals as well.

Is all the data public?

Zach Apte: The idea of open access data is that we can take anonymized data, and it can be accessed by scientists all over the world. We’re trying to take that model and put strong privacy protections on it. So you can opt in if you want your data to be included in that data set, and we’re going to make sure that there’s no way to identify you.

What do I get out of it?

Zach Apte: We’re going to be correlating results with the past studies that have been done, and further correlating within the group. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the dating site OKCupid, but what they do is they crowd-source the questions they use to match people together.

Based on your answers to those questions, they match people up. We’re actually going to do something similar. This is citizen science: You ask your own questions, and we’re going to try to see where you correlate and who you correlate with.

Jessica Richman: On a more practical level, such as should you go on the paleo diet? You can measure before and measure after starting the diet and see how your correlations change.

Why should I care?

Jessica Richman: You may be interested in finding out what’s inside of you. Another motivation is your health; if you have a specific condition, you can learn about that and learn what you might be able to do to help it, both for yourself and for the larger community of people that suffer from that, and for science — to understand on a basic level what’s going on there.

The microbiome is important in ways we don’t even completely understand. It’s correlated with all kinds of things. There are clear connections, but we don’t have a complete understanding of what’s happening. The more people we can get to sequence their microbiomes, the more we can all learn together.